Six common challenges for PhD students

Plenty of PhD students share their stories about how they get through the process. This guide looks at how they deal with the ups and downs of their study, and explains six common challenges for PhD students.

Triumph and disaster – two impostors

Many PhD students find their vocation in academia, and the PhD is a key component of their evolution. Edward explained his journey to become a Lecturer in Medieval French Studies. Andrea told us about her experiences in becoming a published researcher in Nutrition.

Successful completion of a PhD requires a number of skills and with careful planning the stages fall into place. Our recent article shared the top ten tips that PhD students are using.

However, the reality for many students is that for all the successes there will be challenges in equal measure.

Supporting your studies through funding

Managing your money is a challenge whether you are studying a PhD or working at the shop checkout. The PhD funding model is quite complex. It depends on the research studentship that you are undertaking and the funding that the project attracts. All PhD researchers need to manage their finances carefully, because the project will usually last for up to three years.

Planning for the long term is key to managing your finances. If you have survived thus far as a student and decided to carry on, then you will be used to the lifestyle that is required to live as a student researcher.

If you are coming back to academia after a period in regular salaried work, then that can be more difficult to adjust to. Many PhD students undertake their research commitments while working part time to manage their income.

Preparing for life as a student researcher is key to the successful completion of a PhD. Understanding how the funding works and how to take advantage of sources of funding will help to alleviate any concerns you may have. Some subjects attract a large share of government support, but not all, so it is important to understand the differences.

Time Management

Attaining the perfect work/life balance is something we all strive for. Taking on a PhD is probably going to put the greatest strain on the structure you have built around yourself. Plenty of self-help experts offer advice as to how to maintain equilibrium and many of them offer valuable insights as to how to do this.

Only you will know what you are capable of achieving in the tasks you have set yourself. Outstanding sporting performance or feats of bravery astound us. Generally these situations are successful because the individual has undergone training. The same applies to the PhD researcher. If managing your time has always been a challenge, then undertaking a PhD will not be as enjoyable as it could be.

Remember that University research departments offer a lot of support to researchers. If the department is supported by a Doctoral College, then a lot of resources are on hand to help you. This includes training in time management and access to study resources. Your supervisor and the other members of the research team have your best interests at heart. It is not in anyone’s interest to leave you to struggle on your own. So do take full advantage of these resources!

This is especially relevant in the post COVID period. Many PhD researchers experienced additional challenges with isolation, as well as lack of access to key resources during the lockdown periods. Thankfully, the worst of that situation has now passed. The support mechanisms that universities put in place have remained active to help ensure that PhD researchers get the help they need.

The stress of isolation

Stress is a normal part of life, and many people find moderate stress is a useful motivator. Students experienced the regular stress of exams. Some students are more relaxed about taking exams, but this does not apply to everyone. Researching a PhD always brings its fair share of stress.

Conducting research is a solitary activity for most PhD researchers. Practice summarising the research in case a viva is required. You are likely to spend a lot of time on your own working through the stages of your research.

Individuals behave differently according to how their perception effects their personality type. For example, and extrovert personality gravitates towards other people and social situations. They are more inclined to seek out friends and colleagues and share their emotions freely. Introverts, however tend to keep as far away from public interaction as they can. They feel vulnerable in crowded situations.

The pandemic has had a major influence on wellbeing and self-esteem. However, universities recognised the additional effects of quarantine isolation on their student researchers and took steps to support everyone remotely. We have all welcomed the advantages of video conferencing tools. It is perfectly normal to work remotely and perform normal administrative tasks from a safe environment.

Finding time for fun and recreation is just as important as the process of completing your PhD. Any type of regular leisure activity will have a significant positive impact on your mood and mental wellbeing.

Universities are full of social activities. If you are not crazy about whitewater canoeing that's fine. You will be able to find your niche among a group of like-minded individuals that share a common purpose.


Staying motivated can be a really tricky situation to manage, especially as your PhD program is going to take some years to complete. Many students encounter the ‘second-year slump’ phenomenon. We all face periods of indecision, and it is common to feel as though you are not right for the project you are working on. Impostor syndrome can strike at any time.

The key to remaining motivated is linked to the routines discussed earlier. Having alternative outlets for recreation and socialising is just as important as organising your time and planning your workload. You will have encountered periods of low morale as a student during your undergraduate years. Take extra care if your family or personal life becomes entwined with university study.

Be sure to grab the opportunity for change of scenery if it arises. Many PhD students are encouraged to attend seminars and conferences related to their subject at other university campuses. If you are supervised through a Research Centre or Doctoral College then these activities will be woven into your programme of study. Take advantage of any training programmes that may be on offer.

Disagreements with your supervisor

Nobody sets out to disagree with their supervisor but sometimes it is inevitable. The relationship with your PhD supervisor is really vital, and there are ways of helping you manage that relationship from the outset.

Being a supervisor is a demanding role and highly rated academic staff will always be sought after by intending PhD researchers. Working in concert with your supervisor is a key requirement for the PhD student.

You won’t always agree with their recommendations, and sometimes you will simply go your own way but remember the purpose of working with a supervisor is to learn from their experience. Allow yourself to be mentored by them even though you may hold different views as to the best way forward with your programme.

Final thoughts

This guide gives a short introduction to six common challenges for PhD students, but each research situation is unique.

Completing a PhD is one of the toughest intellectual experiences that a student is likely to face. It would be great if it was plain sailing every time, but the reality can be quite different from the perception.

However, with good planning and an honest appraisal of the risks then most students who are fortunate enough to be in a position to complete a PhD will find the experience truly rewarding.