A guide to a most miserable PhD life

A step-by-step guide to make the PhD the most mesmerizing time of your life.

Disclaimer: This guide may contain a touch of irony, so taking it seriously might actually make your PhD a truly miserable journey.

So you are at the end of your master’s studies, thinking about what to do in life. You could take some time off and see the world, go to industry…

Comic showing a bored person laying on the ground watching flies circling above its head.

…or stay at university and get a PhD!

Comic showing an interested person looking towards the reader while laying on the ground and flies circling above its head.

Sounds great? But why just do a PhD if you could make it the most mesmerizing time of your life? To make it extra special let’s not strive for the positive experience as everyone else, instead, let’s make it the most miserable time of your life. To provide you with some guidance, here is a step-by-step list that should help in achieving your goal of making your PhD experience the most miserable time of your life!

Phase I: Preparing for disaster

Welcome young padawan. You have much to learn. To create the working atmosphere of your dreams, you can make some clever choices before starting your PhD.

  1. Selecting a supervisor: Of course you want a well-known professor! Especially if they are not known for their research but for their quirks like providing a cozy atmosphere of fear, crazy working hours and never having time for any supervision of your thesis or seminars where everyone gets bawled out.
  2. Contract options: You are in for a real challenge – so why strive for a three year contract if you could go for a one year contract and compete with another PhD student on who gets an extension? Another key point, go for the vaguest description of additional obligations like teaching, industry projects, administration and so on – the frequent change of plans in additional obligations with long stretches of no time for doing your research will improve your ability to work under time pressure greatly! Also, settle for a part time contract but work more than full time, because you are in for the research and not for having a job to pay your rent – and since you are planning to life in the office anyways – you won’t need a flat.

Phase II: A Start smooth as abrasive paper

Congrats, you’ve managed to find a suitable supervisor and got the contract of your dreams. Now it’s time to settle in.

  1. Onboarding: Avoid onboarding at all costs – the PhD is your time to learn and grow if you get explained everything beforehand like how to use the office printer, where to get your working equipment, getting a supervision agreement signed – where is the fun in it? Also everyone is on their own journey stumbling over the same issues at the beginning and reinvents the same wheel all over again. Pro tip: start your PhD working from home during a pandemic to avoid these overly friendly more experienced PhD students that want to explain you something.
  2. Topic selection: Since a PhD thesis should advance the state of the art and you are ambitious, strive for a very diffuse topic with the vision to revolutionize at least two to three research fields. Also avoid any overlap to any work of your lab colleagues to be considered an expert as fast as possible. Pro tip: select a topic big companies are currently researching extensively – if a group of people from industry with piles of cash can do it why shouldn’t you on your own?

Phase III: Staying on the track of misery

So you’ve had a bumpy start, great! Let’s keep the attitude!

  1. Supervision: Never communicate your expectations and needs for support to your supervisor and never ask them what they expect from you. It’s so much more fun to stay in the mists of unknown, clueless on what they want, and it also improves your abilities in guessing people’s needs. Instead of wasting time to think about what you want to learn in the PhD, you save time for working in the lab to do the actual work. Besides, never communicating your needs and expectations concerning supervision increases your frustration levels – perfect for feeling miserable! Pro tip: Never get an additional mentor for scientific exchange, you already know better!
  2. Networking: Avoid dangerous opportunities for exchange with other researchers (conferences!), to reduce the risk of getting input to your work or getting distracted with new ideas. Never visit conferences to present your work, always go directly for a journal publication. Also never ever spend time abroad to get to know another research lab and how other countries approach academia.
  3. Collaboration: Work alone – papers with many authors show lack of brilliance. Also never ever talk to any other colleague about your research ideas – your thoughts and research are so extraordinary and great, you don’t need any input or discussion with someone else.
  4. Training: You’ve already went to school and university, why lose time with all those extra trainings and workshops. You don’t need soft skills, you need hard skills and these you only gain by working on your topic.
  5. Focus: You are a smart cookie, you will change the field of research – so don’t waste time by reading related work! Also, never look ahead on what you would like to do after the PhD and how you could adapt your PhD to fit this plan – there is there is one thing and one thing only – doing a PhD!
  6. Working hours: Vacations are time to spend more time on your research without wasting time on other obligations such as teaching. Always be online, have your emails on your private phone and respond to them immediately. Send emails at Sunday 2am to show everyone how serious you are about doing your PhD! Also who needs food, exercise, or even sleep – think about how much time a day you are wasting on these negligibilities! To strap the burden of food from your list subscribe for some powder meal supplements, you get enough exercise from running away from your supervisor, and concerning sleep: there is coffee!
  7. Working atmosphere: Be a beacon of hardship and misery for students! Never treat them with respect, answer their questions or acknowledge their efforts. If you give feedback to their work, always focus on the worse and bawl them up for it. Diamonds are created under pressure, since humans consist of a considerable amount of carbon, pressure is the way to go! Don’t forget – your work is the most amazing and important thing ever, so remind your colleagues and students frequently of it.

Phase IV Surviving in the real world

Congrats, you have made your miserable journey through the PhD. You could now leave academia, go to industry and get a life…

Comic showing a bored person laying on the ground watching flies circling above its head.

…but you have been getting so comfortable in your own misery, why not stay in academia and do a postdocā€¦ or how about doing another PhD?

Comic showing an interested person looking towards the reader while laying on the ground and flies circling above its head.


electrical engineer, currently working as a PhD student at KIT investigating algorithms for cell tracking.

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