Doctor of what? What I really learned from the PhD is not what you may think.

I’ve been asking myself, when preparing my Viva, and even after that, what were the things that would really stay with me forever from doing a PhD, what would make a difference to me, and not to my CV.

It is not the knowledge of how to crunch numbers and do statistics. It is not the endless paper reading, and summarising. Nor the academic writing skills. It’s not the findings I got from my empirical data. Not the expertise in fancy “online customer engagement”

My most treasured PhD learnings areĀ humility & resilience.

Humility, because I started off very full of myself and well-trained to be a proper “young potential”. I was sure of my topic and ability to make it, and certain I did not have much to learn from anyone. I quickly learned that this self-assurance was well over-proportioned and I had much to learn. In hindsight, being a bit cocky is not necessarily bad. It helps you push doors and is a sign of ambition. But I like to think I am now a humbler version of my 2011 self. Understanding and accepting that I am forever a learner is the first take from my PhD. At least now I know I talk a lot of nonsense…As long as my students don’t!


Resilience comes next. Getting a doctorate is a though thing to do. Not because it requires above-average skill and intelligence, but because it is a long journey and quite unrewarding on a day-to-day basis. You embark on a 3 to 6-year project that will lead you miles away from where you intended, and that will make you face constant hurdles that only you can figure out. You get stressed. Most often, you’ll be isolated: your friends, family and even colleagues won’t really understand what you are doing. There are no pay raises or annual incentives to look forward to. No team waiting for you in the office. No colleagues to coordinate with, no clients to get a rush from. No boss to be on your back, really. Resilience comes with a sense of purpose and strong self-management skills.

Humility and resilience are my key takes from the PhD because they are the strongest changes I have seen in me, and those most likely to last, I hope. Like learning how to swim!

This is a post I’ve been meaning to write since I finished my PhD last June (then life catches up and you blog about Christmas commercials before you know it). Here I am now, drafting a talk about “Getting through the PhD” for my beloved Glasgow University PhD successors, and my idea to tell you about this came back. I hope you’ll enjoy these thoughts and the students in Glasgow as well.

And you, which changes have you seen in yourself as a result of your work, PhD or big life events? What made you more resilient or humble?


Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.

January 10, 2016 at 8:36 pm

I agree with both your comments Lau! Definitely humility and resilience for me too. Although I did well at my Masters, starting my PhD has made me realise that I know very little. I also believe that I’m getting to know myself better and I’ve learnt to manage my stress better, which is not always easy when you suffer from chonic anxiety. Overall, it’s a journey of self-discovery and self-improvement

January 10, 2016 at 9:40 pm
– In reply to: Laurence

I totally agree. It’s been such a wonderful journey in hindsight because I’ve learned a lot, but really a hard one too. IT must not be easy when you tend to be stressed in the first place…but it’s rewarding in the end. I’m 400% with you and I am convinced you’ll finish it like a star!

January 10, 2016 at 10:28 pm

Thanks Lau. These words mean a lot

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