What’s the Hardest Part of Being a PhD Student?

I was asked this this question on Quora. Here’s my answer:

Writing an original dissertation.

Anyone who makes it into graduate school has had at least 16 years of learning and, as a result, most graduate students are good learners. A dissertation, however, requires the creation or discovery of new knowledge. On the day you finish your dissertation you have to know something that no one else in the world knows. That is a tall order.

After their course work ends, many students find themselves at a loss. They have done a lot of learning and not much creating or discovering–skills that not only are different than learning but that may even be at cross purposes. A learner has to trust that what he or she is being taught is true and valuable. A learner with too much skepticism won’t pass the final. But a dissertation writer without enough skepticism will never advance beyond previous knowledge and never discover that something previously learned was false.

It’s an odd necessity that the more you know the more skeptical you must become to know more. Not every student navigates this evolution in attitude.

FYI, Quora seems to be growing very rapidly. I first noticed this when my followers on Quora started growing faster than and soon exceeded my followers on Twitter, a fact I found surprising. According to Alexa, Quora has leaped in the popularity rankings 42 places in just the last 3 months. It will be interesting to see how they handle the growth especially keeping the quality of the questions high.


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