Strange Things No One Tells You About Grad School + University

So, I’m now a year and a half into my PhD and, let me tell you, academia is a STRANGE beast. I encountered some of this during my master’s degree as well, but it certainly feels amplified when doing a PhD. Here’s what I wish I knew starting my PhD (almost two years ago now!).

This article is all about things no one tells you about grad school and what I wish I knew starting my PhD.

what i wish i knew starting my PhD

So, without further ado, let’s get into what I wish I knew starting my PhD.

1. People are REALLY BAD at replying to emails and things are generally just so much less efficient than in the corporate world.

This one tops the list of what I wish I knew starting my PhD (not that it would’ve changed anything really, but still). You would expect a big and well-respected institution to function decently well, but the bureaucracy is a MESS. I’ve had so many issues with getting paid on time and the right amount, among other admin issues. Generally, you’d also think that people who are at the top of their field are more or less on top of all areas of life, but I’ve waited MONTHS for people to reply to a simple email.

weird things about uni

2. You don’t necessarily need to do anything specific to prepare.

I was SO worried before I started my PhD (since I was switching fields) that I hadn’t done nearly enough prep work. But, honestly, in my experience, you’re not really expected to know that much from the start and you can spend the first year getting up to speed.

3. Everyone is really just winging it—from your peers to your supervisors.

This is really what I wish I knew starting my PhD a couple of years ago. I suppose this is true in life as well, but it’s a good one to remember when imposter syndrome sets in. Even your supervisors are still figuring things out. That’s what research IS. If everyone had all the answers, the entire field wouldn’t exist. Embrace it!

things i wish i knew before starting my phd

4. On that note, supervisors are EVERYTHING.

I knew supervisors were important, particularly as I saw quite a few people fail their PhDs at Oxford basically because of their supervisor. While I knew how important they were academically, I didn’t realise how important they were to the personal side of things. Having a supportive supervisor who encourages you to take time off when you need it and to not be so hard on yourself is INVALUABLE and can really make or break your PhD experience.

5. If you’ve worked before, people will think you’re way more qualified for your PhD (basically for no reason).

This one was so weird to me. When I started, a lot of people seemed to have a different impression of me just because I’d worked in the mythical ‘industry’. Apparently, this was even the case in my PhD interview. In a lot of cases, if one of your supervisors is early in his / her career, they may not have worked in the ‘real world’ before, so they really do see this type of experience as a bonus.

unexpected things about college

6. A lot of people let people take advantage of them and use them for free labour.

After spending years in law honing my ‘saying no’ skills, this one was also surprising. People seem to assume that, just because someone asks you to work on a side project, or do a presentation, that you have to do it. And that, even if you’re doing it for a company, you’ll do it for free. Now, if it’s a good opportunity and mutually beneficial, you absolutely should if you have the capacity. But, you can also say no? And nothing is going to happen? Don’t let people just take advantage of the fact that you’re an early career researcher and use you for free labour.

7. Everyone’s workload will be VASTLY different.

You’d think doing a PhD is doing a PhD, right? WRONG. One of my flatmates easily works 70-80 hours a week, while another one works maybe 15 hours some weeks.

what i wish i knew starting my phd

8. Everyone’s journey is also completely different.

Along the same lines, some people will come in and be essentially continuing a project from their master’s that they’ve made a lot of progress on already. Some people, like me, are completely changing fields. Don’t compare yourself to others! You’ll all get to the same place in the end!

9. There are LOTS of distractions from your dissertation and random other requirements.

A list of what I wish I knew starting my PhD would certainly be incomplete without this one! I knew that my programme specifically had some additional training requirements, but I kind of thought that, after the first year, it’d just be me and my PhD. That was SO not the case. There’s a tonne of presentations, other papers, side projects, etc. that you’ll be expected to do as well (though, again, you can say no to some of them!).

what i wish i knew before starting my phd

10. Doing a PhD is not as solitary an endeavour as a lot of people make it seem.

So, I was kind of looking forward to just working on my PhD on my own, but there’s a lot more collaborative work than I realised. From group papers, to meetings with research groups, you’re definitely not just working independently the whole time. Now, this isn’t all bad, but it was still a shock!

So, that’s all of what I wish I knew starting my PhD. Are you doing a PhD or are you in grad school? Do you have any additions to this list of what I wish I knew starting my PhD? If you’re not, what did you find weird about the list above? Let me know in the comments below!

Want to know what doing a PhD is actually like? Check out my article on a week in the life of a PhD student and on a day in the life of a computer science PhD student. You can also check out my other articles about doing a PhD and uni tips.

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