Sep 18 2022

How hard is learning PhD in the USA. A sharing of PhD student.

Anna Truong (Translator)

PhD Sharing

According to statistics, 50% of PhD students in the US drop out of school before completing their studies. Back in the day, every time I read statistics like that, I would say to myself “why do people lack willpower? Why did you choose to pursue a PhD and then quit?”. I also don't hesitate to label them "loser". I also feel "annoyed" when someone gives a series of pessimistic reasons such as "just learn and you'll know, it's boring", or "study for what to do" to dissuade me from following this path. But as a saying I have read somewhere "Don't arbitrarily criticize when you do not fully understand the situation of others". After nearly a year of research, I partly understand why many students cannot follow the same research path. I've stopped calling "dropouts" "failures," and I've become more understanding of the advice others have given me before. In this week's blog post, I'd like to share some of the (I think) reasons why students drop out of their PhDs, and some experiences to make the PhD path less arduous!

Is studying a PhD difficult?

The answer is definitely YES. Very hard and arduous. Try to compare the following "two lives", and you will see how extreme a PhD life is. When I was still in Vietnam, every time I came home from work, I could go out with friends or go home to enjoy a good movie or immerse myself in a profound, lyrical novel. Evening is the time I spend with myself, the two words "WORK" are temporarily put aside in a far corner in the life drawer. But since coming to the US to study PhD, it seems that work and life for me are one. I work 10-12 hours a day. Go to class. Be a teaching assistant. Do your own research. Reply. Read read. Write write. This period, almost every week, I work both Saturday and Sunday. However, working a lot doesn't mean you can WORK ALL. When I first started studying, I felt very "annoyed" because I never finished all the things I wanted to do, but then I gradually became more tolerant of myself. Work and research appear in my dreams. There are nights when I wake up from sleep worrying about my upcoming research paper. There are nights when I have very strange dreams. For example, I dreamed that the teacher who taught me Political Institutions decided to move back to Vietnam to teach linguistics, and he decided to fail me because I was bad at studying. haha. Again, I dreamed that I was about to leave for a math exam, but I couldn't find the key to open the door… When I got to class, I told my dream to my teacher and friends, he said, “Haunting work for me. with people working in academics never ends. In the past, I thought that when I found a job I would live comfortably and leisurely, but no, I often have dreams about failing my exams, being criticized for my research, etc.”

Also, when you study for a PhD you will understand what a fast-paced life is. Time is just a relative number, a period, a year passes extremely quickly. You keep finding yourself always on your hands and feet, but never running out of work. If you want to go to PhD to enjoy free travel, then I believe that feeling of disappointment will soon overwhelm you. As someone who loves to travel and explore, I haven't been able to go anywhere this semester.

In my opinion, whether a person can withstand this hardship does not depend on his personality and purpose of studying Phd. I personally feel that I can withstand this life, because I really enjoy doing research and reading and writing. Every time I finish writing a research paper or run a model I'm interested in, I feel elated, like I've achieved something great in life. Again, my busy life makes me rarely sad, and think about it because I…have no time to think!! I also don't care what this person thinks about me, what the other person says about me, I also gradually distanced myself from the frivolous nonsense of life.


Why is it difficult?

In my opinion, studying for a PhD is completely different from studying for a master's degree and studying at university. At the PhD level, you are expected to become a researcher, which means you have to create new knowledge. So is it easy? Of course not! If you meet someone who dares to pat his chest and say “I am so smart, PhD is nothing?”, congratulations, you have met the most arrogant liar in the world! A phenomenon that many PhD students encounter is "imposter syndrome" - this is a phenomenon where individuals always doubt their own abilities, and always think that their successes are due to luck. someone help, due to..falling from the sky, etc. These individuals are also always afraid that their "incompetence" will sooner or later be discovered by others! At first I thought only young students had such thoughts, but I know that even very successful students (with many scientific papers), and novice professors can have these thoughts. those thoughts. Many students suffer from this symptom for a long time, affecting their research work and physical health. I believe that the root of the "imposter syndrome" is the attitude of always comparing ourselves to others. Sometimes I also tinker with the CVs of my classmates, even the teachers at the school. Every time I finish looking at their CVs, I suddenly think "I can never do what they do...". But I often compare apples to oranges because I compare myself now to students who have just graduated or professors who have started working!! It was funny!


If you graduate with a PhD, you can get a job … with a high salary?

The truth is not so sweet.. During the professionalization course, the professor told my class “my colleagues and I sometimes envy old classmates” when I see you guys working in banks, or working in other fields. high salary but a bit jealous”. We also often wish we had more money. But when asked if we were willing to quit our jobs to do something else, none of us said yes. Although I don't have much money, this job gives me freedom in terms of time, on how to organize my work, and I can pursue the topics I love." What is the message of my teacher's story? If you're pursuing a PhD because you want to earn a lot of money, I don't recommend it. Of course, I'm sharing from the perspective of a PhD student in social studies, I don't know what about other majors. I myself sometimes envy my friends who have made money, fame, but every time I ask myself "would I give it all up to be like that?". When the answer is no, I understand that I am on the right track!

How to overcome all challenges?

Studying for a PhD is so hard, so how do we make our path less bumpy? I've only walked a very short distance on this thousand-mile road, so it would be arrogant to say that I know the answer to that question. But please allow me to share with you some small "secrets" I have drawn from myself, as well as learn from friends, teachers and experienced brothers and sisters. Maybe these shares will be useful to you!


Since starting my PhD, I have fully understood the saying "Having health is having everything". I still remember the first semester sickness. At that time, there were days when I worked until 3 am, and almost not every day I went to bed before 12 pm. I lasted about 2 weeks then ..rolled sick. From that time, I promised myself to stay healthy. I try to get 7-8 hours of sleep every night to make sure my mind is clear and my spirit is always upbeat. I realized, sleeping less has a huge impact on your mood. It is the enemy of a very optimistic, energetic spirit who loves life. I observe the friends around me. The best students, the ones with the most articles, are all very active people - love exercise, love sports, love to explore a world outside of school. Like Mathew, my 3-year-old friend, he's only a week away from the hurdles, but he goes to the gym or swims every day. Or like Alexis or Isabel, two lovely girls in my class, every afternoon, they invite each other to run or go to the gym.

Since I realized the importance of health, I try to walk about 45 minutes a day, eat lots of green vegetables, drink lots of water, get enough sleep. I feel that my mood and spirit are different, I see everything so much more optimistically! Of course, there are days when work doesn't allow it, but I limit the activities that affect my health as much as possible.

Good relationships

Having good relationships with friends and teachers is extremely important to make studying a PhD less tiring. Of course this is sometimes out of our control! We can only control what we think of others, but we cannot control what others think of us. But since I started my PhD, (maybe because my time is too busy or because the academic environment makes me more mature), I have only invested in relationships that make me feel comfortable. I like to go to the office every day, to work and chat with people at the same time. The sense of connectedness with people makes me feel part of the research community here, part of this school! Relationships with teachers are also very important. I don't have a specific instructor yet, but I have found one with similar research interests. My teacher and I try to meet once a week to discuss the research we are working on, and it is also an opportunity for me to learn from him. I am willing to accept "harsh" comments without feeling "hurt" because only then can I mature in terms of research.


Remember you have a life beyond your PhD

“Mai, why are you still in the office at this hour? Do you still have a life of your own?" Mark told me so on a winter day a few months ago. It has to go to the office and still find me sitting awkwardly running the numbers by the computer! His words woke me up. Yes, I have a life beyond my PhD. Since then, I consider PhD as my job! A job that doesn't give me a lot of money, but is something I really love to do. Although I love it, I also need the non-work moments, the moments I dedicate to myself. Finding a hobby outside of research is also extremely important! That makes your life more balanced. My friends all have their own hobbies. Alexis loves knitting and drawing. Whenever you are stressed, you bring your shirt to knit or go with your lover to draw pictures. Isable loves to read novels, and she joins a reading group. They often meet and share their literary feelings. Minwoo goes to church to pray in his free time, and participates in a group that helps the homeless. I myself enjoy blogging and reading novels. I consider these two hobbies to help me… balance my busy life. Sharing my experiences, thoughts, and opinions through each word makes me happy and happy. I write for you and also for me, for myself!


Give up if you want

Think of PhD as a job, like a career you are pursuing. And since it's just work, have the courage to give up when you no longer .. love, no longer attached, no longer feel right for you. My thinking is simple: we only have one life, so we are responsible for our own happiness. If a job doesn't bring you joy, just let it go and find another more suitable job. Whether you are just starting your PhD, or have come a long way, have the courage to give up if you do not see this path as yours. Although short-sighted people like me used to "think badly" of you. Despite the disappointments of parents, friends, and teachers. Regardless of what anyone says. Even though…the world turns its back on you. Life is yours, and no one can make the decisions for you, EXCEPT YOU!


Thank you for reading my story to these last lines! Wishing you a very lucky and fun Monday!


This post is translated from the blog of Thanh Mai