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Ten Life Lessons from Doing a PhD

Today, Dr. Deepa Pullanikkatil is sharing with us what she learned during her PhD. Deepa is an Environmental Management professional with an engineering background and she has fourteen years of work experience in developing countries of Malawi, Lesotho, India and Swaziland. She has a B Tech degree in Civil Engineering (India), Post Graduate Diploma in Management (India), Masters in Environmental Management (University of Free State, South Africa) and a PhD in Environmental Science from North West University, South Africa. Her interest areas include climate change adaptation, ecosystems services studies and water resources management. Deepa wrote this blog as a reflection of her journey during the PhD studies.

Dedicating three to four years of your life on one study topic is only possible if you are really passionate about it. The passion will take you through the tough times.

You end up doing all tasks in a substandard manner. Focus you attention and time on one task and do it well. This may mean making hard decisions like taking a sabbatical from your full time work, just to focus on the PhD, or getting out of town somewhere quiet to do focused writing and analysis.

If you wait for the “mood” to set in, or for “inspiration” to come, before you know it, six months would have just flown by. Work every day, even if it’s for just fifteen minutes on your thesis and at the end of the week, you would have made some progress, which will give you the mood and inspiration to work harder.


Yes that means whatsapp, facebook, news notifications, games, etc. To do focused work, every day I would tell myself that I will only check social media after 5pm, NOT first thing in the morning.

I was doing my doctoral studies while working full time at a global NGO and having to juggle family and social life. There were many times I came close to quitting, many nights when I cried myself to sleep missing my family when I was at my university, more than one instance of feeling humiliated by comments from reviewers, and several times when I had to start over and scrap work that I worked so hard for. Coffee helped me concentrate, but took a toll on my health when I started taking 6-8 cups a day. The stress takes a toll on you, and yeah, I did get several grey hairs in the process. But what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.


Talk to everyone who will listen about your study, talking clears things in your mind. I talked to almost everyone, even total strangers I have met in airplanes and many times when I was stuck, I got breakthroughs from some of these discussions. Presenting at international conferences definitely helps; take the comments positively to improve your work.

Things work out with time, hang in there. Keep a positive attitude. PhD teaches you patience, but three/four years will pass before you know it. Enjoy the journey. Celebrate your small successes with a meal out or a family holiday. A chapter completed, field work concluded, a journal article published, a successfully completed analysis are all small wins worthy of a small celebration.

I learnt that in order to complete my PhD, I needed support from my supervisors, family, friends, colleagues and other doctoral students. Without their support, it would not have been possible; this was a humbling experience. I can’t thank my family enough for all their sacrifices, my friends for their unwavering support and kindness and my colleagues for their guidance. My parents, brother, sister in law, husband, all played a role and showered me with kindness and support. My mentors helped me so much, and having great supervisors aided tremendously. I learnt that one is dependent on others and one is really nothing without others. Ubuntu philosophy of “I am because you are” was a very humbling insight for me.


When I got my results, I cried with joy. It was an amazing feeling, I felt very relieved. I enjoyed being referred to as “Dr” and the respect received at the work place definitely improved my sense of self. It feels great to be headhunted as a result of your education. Wearing the red robe and being part of the ceremonial graduation, where the whole university celebrates you, is unbelievably glorifying yet humbling. I thought I would be filled with the glow for a long time, maybe even forever. But, No! The glow didn’t last very long. It lasted (yes I counted), four days since I got my results and about a week after graduation, thereafter, life goes on as usual. That’s when I realized, success is superficial. Success makes you happy for a short while, but it isn’t lasting joy.


I am grateful for the education I received and by no means want to belittle it. But I have realized that getting a PhD, although boosts your self-esteem for a while, does not bring lasting happiness. True meaning and happiness in life is found within yourself and in those you care for, your family, friends and in things which cannot be measured, such as love and kindness. Raising a child to the best of your abilities, making a home filled with love, that is true happiness.
Improving yourself, growing spiritually and overcoming your weaknesses, being a person whom people would remember fondly, that is true success. No number of degrees, no great award winning publication and no global job can compare to the miracle of a family coming together and bringing into being a child. I could never repay the support my parents, brother, sister in law, friends, supervisors and colleagues provided me. It was wonderful to see their proud smiles when I graduated, but I still wonder if the process was worth the sacrifices my parents made, the loneliness my husband and I felt while we were away from each other, the tears my child shed when she missed me?
A Doctorate is not the ultimate achievement, but what matters is living a life filled with love, that brings lasting joy… everyday… so…. The tenth and most important life lesson …..cherish your family and friends!

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This Post Has 14 Comments
  1. Not sure about the comment \”what does not kill you\”. I have seen several candidates suffer mental breakdowns.

  2. There's a big difference between building up some friction and being able to push through, and getting a mental illness. I'm not a psychologist, but I think a toxic environment, difficulties with an advisor etc. might be factors that can cause serious damage to a person's health (mental AND physical), instead of the actual research itself. But maybe I'm totally wrong?

  3. To stay sane I had a huge support structure of family and friends, couldn't have done it without them. Particularly my husband, I came close to quitting about ten times, but he encouraged me along. In a way I did it for them, couldn't let them down. Do whatever it takes to get strength, for some it may be meditation or other things. Stay strong, the journey is worth it at the end.

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