5 types of 1st year PhD students

general phd Mar 10, 2023

Every year, I see cohorts 20 or so PhD and professional doctorate students enter the office. They walk through the office doors with the same look on their face, a look of confidence. They believe that they can change the world, don’t get me wrong, they do! But many students underestimate the PhD experience. Now that the October cohort have had 3 months on their PhD journey, they have developed in different ways.


The “what in fresh hell is this” student

I’ve been there. I was one of them. In the 3 months of the PhD, I had my ass handed to me. Not only was I very naive about the PhD, I was also probably the dumbest person alive on the planet. Everything I read did not make sense to me. What is Foucault saying, why does he talk about butterflies when he was talking about hospitals? Also, qualitative research is more than about interviews?… WHAT?! I was not taught that in my BSc.

If you are like me, you are probably overwhelmed by the nature of PhD. Like I tell my clients, if it were easy, then it would be as common as a degree certificate. The PhD is a progression into academic creation. In other relatively lower levels of education, you are a consumer of knowledge. In a PhD you create new knowledge for the world and because of that, you have to BE at the level where you can create knowledge. That also means either rising above past knowledge creators or going down the path untrodden. Either way, you ‘gotta get good’. That means reading more, writing more, doing more and more importantly, thinking more.

You will get there. Trust me. That’s why it is supposed to take 3 years or longer in other countries.


The “I dont think I know enough” student

While the “what in fresh hell is this” student is overwhelmed by the PhD, there are students who get on with it… but do they really. My supervisor warned me about this. She said there will be students who seem like they have everything under control and seem to be busy doing everything. Well, busy doing everything under the sun, except their own PhD.

As PhD students we are very smart, we even crafted out a new practice of procrastination called displacement. We read broadly, attend endless courses, write paragraphs after paragraphs of dross that we cannot use, all under the guise of doing something but not the actual PhD work. Why? Because it is hard. But it is easy for me to sit for hours listening to a Psychology lecture on YouTube.

If you are this person, you have successfully scared the living crap out of all the “what in fresh hell is this” students. All they see is you working on something or going to a workshop and they think you are moving along with the PhD work. The good thing is, you found the motivation to move under very difficult circumstances. Instead of being crippled by self-doubt, you have found the strength to do something and that is commendable. But now ask yourself how is this course going to help your current deadline. If you cannot give a short direct answer then think if there is a better time to do that perhaps later in the year. Because it appears that everything is new and difficult, we think we need help in all the areas or get better in all of them. However the first year of the PhD is laden with many small milestones like an ethics application or first publications or research proposal. Work on those. They help you focus and guide your development as a researcher.


The “I got everything together” student

Possibly the envy of all PhD students out there of any year. “WOW he/she has got his/her shit together”. “LOOK, how does his hair stay in place all day”. “MY WORD, she has time to match her outfits in the morning”. These people seem like nothing has fazed them. The PhD is a piece of cake. They could do it like any other assignment or chore. They also do not exist.

You only see the great things about them. You admire their first publication, successful ethics application, seamless relationship with their supervisors. But you don’t see the price they paid, or the toll it takes on them, or at least they don’t let on that they are facing difficulties.

I was one of these people. I did publish a paper in the 3rd month of my PhD, I also got my ethics approval quickly and had very supportive supervisors. I had a friend who asked me “I don’t know how you do it?” More importantly, I didn’t tell that friend how I actually did it. I didn’t talk about how I worked overnight in the office to get that paper written, or those weekends when I hauled myself into the office to work on the ethics submission, or the 2 years I spent working with my supervisors and building our working relationship. Also, I never told anyone the many times when all I wanted to crawl under my table, hug my knees and cry because I don’t know what I am doing and my head feels like its going to explode.

Fact is, the PhD never comes easy. It will be difficult for anyone who is new to it. While you celebrate and admire their victories, know that it all comes at a price. The accomplishments do not just fall into their laps. They have worked hard for it and are probably facing difficulties that you do not know about. If you are a “I got everything together” student, find someone to share your troubles and difficulties, it does not make you any less accomplished, only more human. Don’t suffer in silence.


The “my life is more difficult than yours” student

Now on to the worse few personalities I have seen. These students attribute the inability to manage their PhD to other issues of their life, whether it is feeding a family or living far away or being ill for a long time. There is nothing wrong with dropping the ball because other commitments but NEVER EVER tell other people that your life is worse that theirs. It is just plain insulting. It is alright to complain about your life but when you compare it other people, you do not make your issues seem bigger; you are only belittling the issues that other people have gone through and it is not fair. Everyone has a different PhD journey but they all are difficult in their own ways. If you find yourself comparing your life to others, stop. Take some time to listen to other people and their issues.


The “I already know everything” student

If you think you do, then I can tell you safely that you don’t. Take that arrogance and shove it where the sun don’t shine. I don’t see these students in my office but I have witnessed them in action at workshops or courses. Always with their hands up correcting the presenter or interrupting with an anecdote about themselves.

CRAM IT SUSAN. No one cares about your publications prior to the PhD if you are so smart, why are you in the same course as I am? Huh? Huh?

I don’t think people genuinely want to do that on purpose, I think they are just unaware of how they come across. We all have sometimes walked into the room chest pumped with our suspenders under our thumbs thinking we own the room because we know all about topic of the course. For others, it is perhaps something new for them so give them space to learn it. Do not hurry the presenter along just because you know what it is already. Of course you can go home and tell your teddy bear about what a smarty pants you were today. I’m looking at you Susan.

Those are the 5 different types of PhD students I’ve seen. I don’t think we belong to a single type rather, we shift about. It is more about how we cope with difficulties and sometimes the craziness just gets to us. Just don’t be like Susan.