The Two Important Factors of a PhD Program

Spring is a time for flowers, new beginnings, and Ph.D. dreams. As students begin to consider their future academic pursuits, the question of whether or not to pursue a PhD often arises. From the cost of tuition to the location of the school to the specific research interests of the program, there are a lot of variables to take into account. However, in order to have a successful and fulfilling experience, it’s important to focus on the two most important factors of a PhD: a good advisor and acceptable lifestyle changes. By finding a mentor who can support you in your research and being prepared for the demands of a PhD program, you’ll be setting yourself up for success.

1. A Good Advisor

What does it mean to be a good advisor? Unfortunately, unlike PhD students who get field training, professors do not train on how to be a good advisor. Therefore, there’s a large spectrum on how well you will be supervised by a certain faculty member.

The Spectrum of Advisors

On one extreme side of the spectrum, you can have an advisor who always micromanages you. With this advisor, you have no sense of freedom in your research and the way you structure your goals. While it is common for a PhD to work on an already defined project, with this advisor, you are more like a hired research assistant than an independent researcher writing a thesis.

On the other extreme side of the spectrum, there is the absent neglecter. This professor is like Avatar the Last Airbender, when you need them the most, they disappear. You have a hard time contacting or connecting with them and are left to do your PhD on your own. You have a lot more freedom with this advisor but you also feel much more lost and alone.

In the middle is the balanced mentor. This kind of advisor gives you the freedom to explore your research topic but also makes it clear they are available for you when you need them. They organize regular communications so they can monitor your progress without hindering your personal growth. Ideally, this advisor is rooting for you and your research goals and makes it a priority to help you reach them.

Fortunately, most advisors are not at the extreme ends of the spectrum. But, they are likely not a balanced mentor either. While a professor has many other duties than being your advisor, the relationship you have with them will be a dealbreaker for the entirety of your PhD studies.

So, when looking for a good PhD match, make sure you pay close attention to how your potential advisor does their job. Don’t be afraid to ask them directly in the PhD interview what their supervision style is. Also, reach out to the current students of the potential supervisor to get a clear, and hopefully honest, view on what it would be like to work with them.

In addition, evaluate your own needs for a potential supervisor. If you had to pick one side of the spectrum, would you rather have undoubtable support or complete freedom in your studies? Your research interests, the project you apply for, and/or personal preferences might sway this decision. But, make sure to consider these things before accepting a position.

More information how to pick a PhD supervisor can be found here:

2. Acceptable Lifestyle Changes

The second most important factor in deciding the fit of a PhD program is the lifestyle changes that come with it. These changes will depend on where you are before starting the PhD program. Are you fresh out of college looking to start your career? Are you coming from working a job for 2-6 years after finishing school? Have you been working for 10+ years and deciding to do a PhD after gaining expertise in the “real world”? The experiences you have had will determine the size of the sacrifice you have to make to pursue a PhD program.

Then, you have to consider the specific PhD program you want to accept. Is the university in your city, close to your family, friends, and support structure? Is it a few hours out of town? Or is it across the country or even across the world? The further you stray from your support system, the harder it will be to adjust to a PhD. But, if you have a personal need to travel or experience a new place, a great lifestyle change could better than staying in your hometown!

Every PhD program comes with certain lifestyle changes. Even a part-time PhD in your city will require you to add courses, research, and writing on top of your daily routine. So, you must weigh each of these lifestyle changes (cut in salary, taking classes, relocating…) and see if you can accept them in the long-term. By making this decision before taking a PhD position, it will make the adjustment period much easier.


If this spring’s new beginning is a PhD program for you, I wish you the best of luck. Please, make sure to critically think about your potential supervisor(s) and the lifestyle changes that come with undertaking a PhD program. My personal experiences with an absent advisor and a massive lifestyle change have taught me much about this journey and I hope this article saves you some trouble in deciding whether to accept a PhD position or not. Either way, the human spirit is resilient enough to find happiness in the most unexpected places. So, don’t worry too much about it and good luck!

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