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This question has two parts. First, a comparative question. Second, a broad question about why PhD students get so stressed and complain so much.

Do PhD students complain more than people in other professions?

In my limited and biased experience, yes. More generally, there are so many websites about how hard life as a PhD student is. So many memes. These are clearly all composed by current or former PhD students. My cohort's facebook feeds read like journals written in prison. Party conversation demonstrates a general obsession with complaining about life in a PhD program. People often half-joke about how starting the PhD program was a horrible mistake. PhD students have even been roasted on 30 Rock. And they're often weirdly nervous about trivial stuff. Yes, these are online comedy bits, but they are funny because they capture something true.

Many jobs are stressful and I believe that people in other fields handle their stress better or, at the very least, feel compelled to maintain that appearance. I started my PhD a bit later than average. Before doing so I worked in a few other fields, some of them more stressful than academia by reasonable standards (higher consequences of mistakes for oneself and/or for others, faster pace work environment, higher likelihood of being insulted/embarrassed by supervisors, what have you).

Why do PhD students complain so much?

I see a few reasons why PhD students have such a hard time.

Admittedly, there is a lot of work. But there are lots of jobs where you need to work very hard for long hours.

In many disciplines, there is no clear management structure where someone can tell you what to do when and when you are done. Of course, this can be stressful.

Because of the nature of theoretical innovation and research, one is never "done" with work. There is only a choice of when one is going to stop for the day or stop on a particular project (e.g., by submitting for publication).

Many PhD students have spent little time outside of school and academia. Most of their schooling until the PhD program was very structured with short-term goals. In a PhD and now they are responsible for defining their own projects.

PhD programs may attract uniquely stressful, driven people.

Maybe the idea of being a "student" fosters immature attitudes about the work environment, even though PhD students must deal with real adult workloads. People in many other lines of work have no illusions about their obligation to handle their workload.

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closed as too broad by Piotr Migdal, Paul, StrongBad, Peter Jansson, aeismail May 7 at 18:35

There are either too many possible answers, or good answers would be too long for this format. Please add details to narrow the answer set or to isolate an issue that can be answered in a few paragraphs.If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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Actually, each of your subquestions should be a separate question in its own right—although the first two are somewhat more opinion-oriented. The last would be particularly useful, though. –  aeismail May 7 at 6:24
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I mean, maybe I'm an exception, but grad school has been great for me. Undergrad is what sucked in my case. I get to do research I love doing (molecular dynamics simulations), workout, go to the pool, and hang out with friends all the time. I wish I could stay in grad school for more than four years. –  James May 7 at 6:29
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@xLeitix I try to provide some evidence for the premise. In the end, our conclusions are based on personal experience (unless you have stats on complaining by profession). My friends who are in PhD programs complain much more (or at least more publicly) than my friends who aren't in PhD programs. PhD students have a structure (the PhD program) to complain about without specifically insulting their employer or supervisors. Possibly, people in many other types of jobs have less ability to complain in the abstract -- to complain would mean pointedly insulting their organization or boss. –  jabberwocky May 7 at 7:30
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And in a similar vein to Dirk's remark, I offer as a counterexample the huge success of Dilbert, which is pretty much a 25 year long complaint about working in the tech industry. –  Christian Clason May 7 at 10:23
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@jabberwocky Great question**s** - please split them into 3. –  Piotr Migdal May 7 at 14:30
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5 Answers 5

Do PhD students complain more than people in other professions?

No.

To quote Drew Carey:

Oh, you hate your job? Why didn't you say so? You know there's a support group for that. It's called everybody. They meet at the bar.

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I really like JeffE's executive summaries. You should do more of those. –  xLeitix May 7 at 13:33
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-1 for authoritative "No." without any link to data/study/survey. –  Piotr Migdal May 7 at 14:29
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Amusing quote from Drew Carey (and I even remember that quote), but this answer doesn't really address the question, in my opinion. –  Faheem Mitha May 7 at 15:35
    
Nice thing about academia is that not everybody hates their job. Researchers can make a credible claim to be doing something they love, not just doing something to earn a living (because who in their right mind does research for the money?). It's just one reason why professors regularly come out at the top of job satisfaction rankings. –  jabberwocky May 8 at 10:45
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Do PhD students complain more than people in other professions?

I very much doubt it. See JeffE's summary. There are dozens of memes about complaining - law students, med students, engineering undergrads, administrative staff, IT people...seriously, just about every profession has its memes about how much their jobs are terrible.

Why do PhD students complain more than people in other professions?

  • They're not being paid very much, and for many of them, their friends - who had similar educational backgrounds - who didn't go to grad school are now making money, and the opportunity cost is pretty vivid.
  • The PhD is a problem that requires unbounded effort. Until the day you defend, there's always something you should be doing. At the same time, there's rarely something you need to be doing that day. Handing someone a years long, unstructured time management problem is going to cause some stress.
  • There's not necessarily a way out. For CS, Physics, Math etc. there may be escape hatches into industry, but for many STEM PhDs, and almost all humanities PhDs, there's really no net-benefit for your degree outside of academia. You've got an expensive (in opportunity cost and time), specialized set of knowledge that no one cares about. You can see this reflected in some surveys - Physics PhDs tend to be somewhat more happy than their Biology counterparts.

How can I handle this socially and professional?

You can try to avoid it, although do realize that "shared suffering" is a social bonding experience, and these people will be your colleagues. You will be missing some of that.

I certainly hope that this climate does not continue into faculty life

I have some bad news for you.

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+1 for "I have some bad news for you." –  xLeitix May 7 at 15:07
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+1 Great points. Had not ever considered the "shared suffering" part. I split the question. Please consider putting the input about how to "handle it" here: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/20476/… –  jabberwocky May 8 at 10:37
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Two factors that I think are the most relevant:

  • PhD student is one of the lowest salary/education ratio. The best students, with highest grades, doing the highest level coursework get fairly crappy salaries (when any). In Spain, where I am from, getting the best grant the Ministery offers barely allows you to rent a shared flat and eat cheap. Sweden, where I am now, is one of the best countries to be a PhD student regarding salary and conditions. One salary is enough to provide a living and housing for two people. Still, a first job for a STEM graduate usually means three times more salary.
  • Uncertainity. A junior in a company is assigned a clear task with a goal, where the manager, seniors, etc. are sure are achievable goals. In research, no one can know this. You don't really know what you are doing is even possible until you get it. Sure, you have advisors, but they can only guess what is going to be. In short: nobody really knows what they are doing.

Also I think there is a sense of unifying community. People that make land surveys and mapping (for example) may be subject to similar conditions, but they will feel no sense of familiarity with the perks of the life and work of a librarian. Grad students, no mater what is their field, have something in common, and thus a sociologist can very well relate to a mathematician as well as an slavic philology expert. So, a map maker can whine as much as a grad student, but they will not see the same echo.

Also, anyone who has gone to university knows a bunch of grad students. That is much more reach than aeronautic engineers, that are mostly related with other engineers. Grad students in a general term are much more common that many other particular professions.

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"Uncertainity. A junior in a company is assigned a clear task with a goal, where the manager, seniors, etc. are sure are achievable goals." Having been a junior in a company, I highly doubt that this is always the case. –  xLeitix May 7 at 13:35
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I think the uncertainty comment is a good point though; Publishing is fraught with uncertainty, and a very slow feedback loop. "Worse than industry" is going to be subjective, I don't think neuroses are a bad response to the bizarro world of publishing. –  Matthew G. May 7 at 13:41
    
Maybe they are not achievable in time and budget, but they are possible, in some sense. Unless your manager is unreasonable, but even with the most reasonable professor, you never know. –  Davidmh May 7 at 13:42
    
@MatthewG. In the danger of repeating myself: I am unsure whether that is actually different "in the wild". Ever founded a startup, launched a new product from scratch, and discovered after a year of coding that users don't like the premises (happened to a friend of mine)? The bizarro world of publishing does not seem that bad then. –  xLeitix May 7 at 14:09
    
@xLeitix True enough, though, I'd say that while there are areas of industry that have crazy things happen, it's perfectly possible to have a normal well-adjusted workplace in industry, whereas it seems like very few grad students are left un-puzzled by the world of publishing. –  Matthew G. May 7 at 15:21
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(one important comment - this all relates to PhD students in Europe, where you usually get an actual salary while doing your PhD. I have no experience about grad student life on a stipend, as in the US)

Do PhD students complain more than people in other professions?

No, I don't think so. Sure, PhD students complain about their job. So do all other professionals. I have been in software engineering for two years before my PhD, and people have certainly complained a lot there as well. My non-research friends just as often bitch about their jobs, bosses, work conditions, salary, etc. as my fellow researchers. Just a peek at workplace.SE already gives you a confirmation that being dissatisfied with your work conditions is not a thing specific to PhD students.

I believe that people in other fields handle their stress better or, at the very least, feel compelled to maintain that appearance.

I do not agree at all. I have seen so many people act unprofessionally inside and outside of academia (due to stress or personal issues), it is not even funny. Your perception is entirely opposite to mine.

My favorite story in relation to that is that of a very senior full professor storming out of a meeting with tears of anger in her eyes, because she felt than another professor in the meeting was not valuing her experience in a topic sufficiently). She has later excused herself and stated that she was going through a personally hard time. Unprofessional behaviour is not inherently a grad student thing.

My cohort's facebook feeds read like journals written in prison. Party conversation demonstrates a general obsession with complaining about life in a PhD program. People often half-joke about how starting the PhD program was a horrible mistake. PhD students have even been roasted on 30 Rock. And they're often weirdly nervous about trivial stuff.

Yes, the complaining PhD student is a meme by now. That does not mean it has to be true, although such memes tend to have a bit a self-fulfilling nature. The question is, when you look at the prison-like FB posts of your cohort, how many complaints are tongue-in-cheek, and how many are serious "this is all so f*cked up" statements. I should also add that looking at only your cohort may give you a false impression of generality, as you all attend the same school, maybe are even advised by the same professors. Basically, if something is "off" in your environment, it would explain why your cohort complains, but says very little about other universities (like the ones I have experience with).

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"in Europe ... you usually get an actual salary while doing your PhD" -- this may no longer be true, depending on the field. Research institutes often seem to rely solely on stipends and university departments often have only a few of their doctorands employed for teaching, the rest on stipends. (It saves you money not to employ them. My experience/information is limited to Germany, though.) –  Raphael May 7 at 11:32
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In Sweden, you are not allowed to do a PhD not being employed. Anti-slavery law. The first year you get a grant, with partial benefits, and then you are fully employed by the institution. –  Davidmh May 7 at 11:48
    
+1 for the phrase "dissatisfaction" can also be very infectious –  Jonathan Landrum May 7 at 16:16
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@Davidmh ok, this is going to be a long enumeration then, I guess. In Spain you may have funding from the ministry, a project or a few other sources, but if you don't then you can still be a student and do your PhD if you feel like that. The salary is around 15000€/year, at least in computer science. –  Trylks May 7 at 18:22
    
+1 Great thoughts. The stuff at the end is great for the "how to handle it". After moderator suggestion I moved that part of the question to a new post. Considering moving your advice here –  jabberwocky May 8 at 10:59
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(As suggested by jabberwocky, I have moved the last part of my answer to http://academia.stackexchange.com/a/20482/13852).

While I don't think the question is worded constructively, this is a relevant and prominent issue in academic life. First, the question whether PhD students complain more than other professional groups is not really helpful, so I will ignore it (others have given enough counterexamples) and instead focus on the other part, namely "why do they complain?"

As has been noted, doing a PhD is a time of uncertainty and huge external and/or internal pressures, on a scale -- both in time and magnitude -- usually unprecedented for the student. Complaining about it is a coping mechanism (one of a range of possible mechanisms, whose efficacy will vary from person to person). It is also a valuable bonding activity. This is a crucial point, since your research as a PhD student is often so specialized that you can't profitably talk about it to anyone outside a small circle of fellow specialists. On the other hand, the external circumstances of doing a PhD (deadlines, interactions with your advisor or lack thereof, run-ins with the administration) will be instantly familiar to any graduate student, no matter what the field (witness the popularity of PhD Comics, which is not limited to mechanical engineering). Add to that the fact that many graduate students are pursuing their PhD away from home and thus their social circle mostly consists of fellow students, and it's not surprising that most interactions outside possibly a small circle of close personal friends are dominated by this topic. (In fact, complaining around your personal friends as you would among peers is the fastest way of losing them.)

Regarding your comment

My friends who are in PhD programs complain much more (or at least more publicly) than my friends who aren't in PhD programs.

They probably complain much more to you about their professional life, since you're a professional peer of the former but not of the latter.

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+1 You offer the best advice on how to "handle it" but I removed that part of the question by moderator request. Please consider moving your answer to: academia.stackexchange.com/questions/20476/… –  jabberwocky May 8 at 10:39
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