PhD – A lonely journey / True or False?

PhD – A lonely journey / True or False?

One year ago, when I was still living in Denmark, I applied for a PhD position placed in Greece, within a Marie Curie – Innovative Training Network (ITN) project, AgRefine. I was chosen for some interviews and I finally was offered the Marie Curie scholarship.  Then, I had some days to think about it. During these days, a lot of thoughts came in my mind. In the one hand, it was a good chance for me to move back in Greece where I come from, with high job prospects and in a totally relevant scientific field, to my studies. On the other hand, I have seen and heard that PhD is a difficult sport and not suitable for all. Being in academic environment for more than seven years, I know that PhD life is full of stress, increased workload, loneliness. Thus, pros and cons should be weighted before I make the final decision for the next 3-4 years of my life. I did my own research and below are presented some of the most common side effects, you can face during a PhD.

  • Loneliness

As already mentioned, the feeling of loneliness is the result of the fact that, the PhD usually involves solitary work. Even if you are in the lab or in the office with other PhD students, post-docs, or other researchers, most of the times they are focused on their own work. Thus, it’s up to you to turn up every day, make decisions, be motivated and cope with problems. It’s you that has to carry around the stress and workload that comes with your research as a PhD candidate and it’s you who has to continuously find solutions over what you struggling with, insurmountable hurdles, problems and sticking points.  

  • Non-existent social life

The increased workload and the deep focus on your research often affects your social life, meaning that you have to isolate yourself from friends and family. You may spend too many hours in the lab, bury your head in books or data. Often, there is no time to hang out with friends as often as you would like, or to have some hobbies and activities which may help to alleviate anxiety and stress. But even if there is the time to meet family and friends, many times there is the feeling that people who haven’t done a PhD can’t understand the unique stress and anxiety you’re facing. It may also result in delaying big life decisions.

  • Mental health status and depression

The above facts may lead to serious mental health problems, especially depression. The latter has raised the consideration of a good many scientists being the main topic of several scientific studies.  For instance, Levecque et al., 2017 showed that 32% of PhD students are vulnerable to have or develop depression, considering 12 mental health symptoms (GHQ-12). This percentage was increased compared to other similar groups. In particular, the sample of the study included three different groups: highly educated in the general population, highly educated employees, and higher education students [1]. Thus, it is important for PhD students to have a balanced everyday life.

It is quite obvious that a PhD can be lonely journey BUT it doesn’t have to be! The modern life offers a lot of contemporary solutions to eliminate the possibility of having a depressive personal and professional life.

  • Link with people around you

Socialising within your institution is the first and easiest step you can take when starting a PhD in a new environment. Both at universities and research institutes, there are usually groups composed of PhD students who may organise a variety of events such as weekly meet ups, trips, groups for sports and hobbies. Also, there are often social events led by the institutions where you can meet new people and potentially new friends.

  • Social media

We live in the world of social media which can be used in many different ways. In this case, social media could be an alternative way of communication between PhD students through which they can support and motivate each other, express their fears, concerns, goal achievements and the similar situations under they may be. Being a member of an online community (Facebook groups, forums, twitter), not only eliminates the feeling of loneliness but also you can feel connected with other PhD students across several universities and countries. It is also easier to realise that what you are struggling with is a common situation for many other people too.

  • Social life outside of the PhD scope

What you have to avoid first of all is to make your PhD your entire life. It is necessary to have time for your personal satisfaction. If you have stopped all your hobbies without realising it, it’s time to pick up at least one! Keep time for friends and your family who may be totally irrelevant to the academic lifestyle and your scientific field. These time-breaks are important to clear your mind as well as to keep you updated on current affairs and be able to discuss a variety of subjects outside of your project. By taking that time off, the level of stress and anxiety can be reduced affecting positively on your work efficiency.

Me as PhD student

Being here and writing that blog right now means that I accepted the scholarship and I am a PhD student, but this does not mean that I have no second thoughts and fears about that decision. The nature of that job is loneliness itself.  To get a PhD degree is an individual achievement which requires working independently, so most go that path alone.

Personally speaking, I try to keep my life in balance, and my fears away. Marie Curie ITN offers me the chance to be linked with people all over Europe. It’s a unique opportunity and an advantageous position to be a member of such a project. Except from the scientific part, there is also the part of communication, socialising and support. There is a team of PhD students who work around the same project which directly means that your work becomes less individual and the feeling is that you belong to a team. Weekly meetings between students are organised where we can express our feelings, get to know each other better, be supported and motivated and also have fun. In the end, if you feel alone or sad at some point, you definitely know that you have some friends even some thousand miles away. Extroversion is also driven by the range of activities organised within the project where we have to participate and contribute. In particular, the journal club, the blog of the project and the twitter profile have to be represented by each of us at least once.  Therefore, it is difficult to feel alone and isolated while at the same time you have the possibility to develop a multifunctional personality. Being back in Greece is an extra advantage for me since it is quite easier to adjust even in a new environment. Coming back, I started tennis which is my new hobby, I made new friends and I travel to see my family whenever I can. Thus, I try to be active and keep my personal time away from work and stressful moments.

Sooo, the conclusion for me is that, it’s up to you and your choices if the journey to the PhD completion will be lonely or not. We are many! Don’t let yourself feel alone because you are not!


[1] Levecque, K., Anseel, F., De Beuckelaer, A., Van der Heyden, J., & Gisle, L. (2017). Work organization and mental health problems in PhD students. Research Policy46(4), 868-879.


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