I tend to get much work done when some external force (a teacher) applies pressure. Skills such as speed reading and rapid writing come to me only while working under pressure. Also, sometimes the best solutions only come to me immediately before deadlines. I am interested in starting a PhD, but nervous that there will be long stretches where I will not have to submit progress or there might not be much pressure for me to get work done.

Do students working towards a PhD thesis typically face frequent deadlines and pressure in the form of specific targets? How do advisors typically apply pressure to their PhD students?

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    I feel that there is no single good answer to this. Many advisors don't apply any pressure at all (this can happen when the buy-in for the advisor is too low). Those that do, do so in various forms.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Nov 18, 2014 at 13:30
  • @xLeitix definitively. Anyway, you have many different flavors of pressure, if you are worried only about the lack of pressure then you can set deadlines for yourself, either for whole papers or parts of them. Sure, you mentioned an "external force", but you can take the PhD as an opportunity to learn many skills, including being self-driven, which is only going to be good in the long term.
    – Trylks
    Commented Nov 18, 2014 at 13:57
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    Some supervisors don't. Some do it well. Some do it badly. You'll need to take particular care in who you work with if this is a major issue for you.
    – Chris H
    Commented Nov 18, 2014 at 16:59
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    Enthusiasm is an important factor in research, if you are not eager to pursue research without external pressure, you might not enjoy the sort careers for which a PhD is a requirement. As a researcher you need to be self-motivated. A PhD is three years of study, and you might want to consider whether it is something you really want to do. Commented Nov 19, 2014 at 10:35
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    When I was a postgraduate research student (MPhil) I had weekly one2ones with my supervisor where we'd review what I'd done and what i was going to do in the coming week. He did the same for all his PhD students and this meant we all had some regular pressure applied to us. Some students tend to drift a little when their supervisors are absent for weeks and months but under this regime it was impossible. If i ever undertake a PhD i'm going to insist on weekly meetings with my supervisor.
    – 5uperdan
    Commented Nov 20, 2014 at 11:09

6 Answers 6


I am interested in starting a PhD, but nervous that there will be long stretches where I will not have to submit progress or there might not be much pressure for me to get work done.

Congratulations for having identified one of the major differences between research projects on the PhD level and earlier levels even before starting a PhD! In my opinion, dealing with problems on your own and without real pressure for weeks ore maybe even months is really a characteristic feature of PhD research. One of the competences which you should acquire before the PhD degree is to go through such phases successfully.

That said, there's of course different types of support (or pressure, if you prefer to call it so) from your supervisor and your fellow researchers, mostly your supervisor's group or collaboration partners.

  • Your supervisor may ask you or suggest to submit a paper to a specific conference, which has a submission deadline.
  • You may be involved in a collaboration project, where regular meetings with project partners take place, and a presentation of the latest results will be expected.
  • A third-party funded project may require regular reports on research results, which you may be asked to provide if you work on that project or a related topic.
  • Many groups have regular meetings where people discuss their latest research results. You'll be expected to contribute some results of yours from time to time.

But of course, how much pressure is built up by such expectations varies from place to place. Also, a difference to undergraduate research or coursework is that consequences usually do not come immediately if you fail to "deliver", but will only be visible on the long run, over the course of one or two years maybe.

Generally, I'd say that a young supervisor with a growing group will put more pressure on you to deliver research results than a more established researcher with a large group, because the young supervisor depends more on your results for his own progress, and should have more time to work with you closely.

Also, the group you're involved in matters a lot, because discussion with colleagues stimulates research ideas, and also puts you into a mode of "having to deliver something". Check a potential group for jointly authored publications (not only PhD student + supervisor) to get a feeling for how active it is in terms of collaboration. The latter point is especially important for a large group with an established senior supervisor.

  • 8
    I was wrong. This is in fact a great answer.
    – xLeitix
    Commented Nov 18, 2014 at 16:13
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    I'd say that a young supervisor with a growing group will put more pressure on you to deliver research results than a more established researcher with a large group — And what about young professors with large groups, or established professors with small groups? (I know the former, and I am the latter.)
    – JeffE
    Commented Nov 18, 2014 at 17:19
  • I agree, many undergrads and failed PhD students need somebody directing them towards solving the problem, including providing the pressure to do so. Finding self-motivation and self-pressure is a key point to develop independent research skills. One must be careful though as too much self-pressure during a PhD easily leads to burnout.
    – Miguel
    Commented Nov 18, 2014 at 19:19
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    @JeffE I'm not sure I can provide better advice than "it depends" here. Many established professors with small groups work very intensively with their few students, providing an excellent research environment, but I also now persons at this stage who don't even care to recruit students, much less working closely with them.
    – silvado
    Commented Nov 19, 2014 at 9:24

In my opinion, the most important thing that one should learn during the course of a Ph.D. and postdoc is how to be an independent researcher, directing one's own line of research. Part of that is learning how to acquire your own motivators. If you need external motivators, the academic world is full of deadlines that you can apply to yourself: conference deadlines, journal revision deadlines, project review deadlines, grant application deadlines, collaborators who need you to hold up your end of a bargain.

If you find a framework of deadlines is important for you, you should be able to arrange for weekly meetings with your advisor, which can provide a running set of deadlines for you to target. Early on in your program, much of the goal-setting is likely to come from your advisor. Later, as you mature as a researcher, hopefully it will shift to be more coming from you. Depending on your field, your advisor, and your personality, that may come sooner or it may come later (which is why I included postdoc above).

At the same time, I will warn you that deadlines and short-term goals are a good way to avoid one of the hardest things about research: finding the perspective to step back, take a look at the bigger picture, and figure out what is actually important to do. At one point in my Ph.D., my advisor told me that now was the time that I needed to just go sit under a tree and think for a while. He was right, and I didn't like what I found when I stopped doing and thought seriously about how those things related to my actual dissertation goals.

It's entirely possible to do a Ph.D. and postdoc in an entirely project-focused and deadline-driven way, while never developing as an independent researcher, but instead becoming sort of a "super technician." In fact, pressure from grants provides incentives for professors to push their students to do so, creating deliverables rather than learning to self-direct. You can have an excellent career in industry or a non-PI position in academia on the basis of such work, and that's fine. If you want to be an independent investigator leading your own line of research, however, then at some point across Ph.D. and postdoc, you will need to learn how to handle the dreadful freedom of managing your own time and expectations.

  • +1 for "short term goals are a good way to avoid ..... looking at the big picture.." There is a time to focus on tangible short goals driven by deadlines and there is a time to step back and take a long view of things. The hard part is to know when to do what because sometimes sitting under a tree is the best way to avoid getting anything done.
    – Amatya
    Commented Nov 18, 2014 at 19:45

I would offer two suggestions.

First, the structure of the relationship between a grad student and their advisor is partly dependent on their individual styles, but is largely what they make it. So don't expect that your advisor would automatically set deadlines, targets, etc (some might and some might not), but if that is something that would be helpful to you, ask your advisor to help you by doing it. You could arrange a system where at each meeting, the two of you agree on what you will have finished by the next meeting (or by intermediate deadlines in between if needed). You might find it helpful to describe it as "accountability" rather than "pressure".

More broadly, I completely understand your tendency to "work best under pressure" (I sometimes feel the same myself), but I would suggest that ultimately, rather than relying on people around you to impose that pressure, you might consider working on changing that aspect of yourself. In my own experience, I found that saying "I work best under pressure" turned into "I only work when there is pressure, and until then I procrastinate." (Sometimes this is due to the work being consciously or subconsciously stressful; perhaps paying attention to a project brings up the fear that maybe I'm doing it all wrong, I must be an idiot, I'll never graduate, etc. So it's easiest to avoid these thoughts by avoiding the work until it can't be avoided any longer.)

The work got done in the end, but it wasn't my best work: it was last-minute and only marginally acceptable, and had I started earlier I could have produced something better. It's not easy to change one's own habits and thought patterns if they are ingrained, but it's something that can really be a long-term benefit.


For your coursework, if any, you will face the same sort of deadlines you'd find in any college course. Expect little or no slack on late or sloppy work, though. In one of my courses, grades were 100% or zero. For the dissertation, it will depend on your supervisor. Mine required biweekly reports. When you get near the dissertation stage, ask potential supervisors or committee chairs how they do that.

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    In many places, PhD studies do not include coursework.
    – Cape Code
    Commented Nov 18, 2014 at 13:32
  • @CapeCode: Thanks. (My experience is a sample of one.) I'll adjust the answer.
    – Bob Brown
    Commented Nov 18, 2014 at 13:39

There is no unique answer for this question of course. So I would like to add also my view:

Some supervisors "apply pressure", by being very passive and not setting any deadlines at all, but giving students a lot of self-responsibility. For some people there is no greater pressure then the pressure they set themselves. So the idea is they are learning you to create your own pressure.

It is kind of in the same way as the most horrible teacher, can in the end be the best teacher. Because in case you didn't understand anything of his/her horrible explanation, you had to figure it out yourself, and after you did, you never forget it. Whereas the good flowed story of the great professor, saved you a lot of time, and boosted fast understanding but might have hindered you to question important assumptions, or to study fundamental aspects firmly.

If supervisors help you by setting a lot of deadlines, chopping up the work in small pieces, and specifying the targets, it may help you, but also it could hinder independence. This is why I think its very difficult to compare PhD's because even of 2 people would have done the same work, but under completely different supervision, and resources, the grade or rating, should be different.

My recommendation is that you tell him, how you liked to be supervised. In my case I would have asked for a gradual transition from very structured with deadlines in the first year, to complete freedom in the last year.


Don't bother. You will be wasting your time and others, and possible stopping someone more deserving from the getting opportunity of a lifetime. I expect someone with or aiming for a PhD to be telling me what needs to be done, not expecting me to tell them.

The whole point of having a higher level certificate is not to prove that you can be taught, it is to prove that you can learn and you can work. As an employer, I want someone that I can present with a problem and get back a solution. If I have to stand over your shoulder asking "have you done it yet?" then you wont enjoy my company, and I certainly wont enjoy yours.

---- edit to address some of the comments below ----

I was being deliberately harsh but not (intentionally) insulting, I apologise for any offence taken. I did not criticise the OP for his or her self-organisation, only their self motivation, and it is this I am hoping they will re-evaluate. In academia, as in commerce, it is expected that a junior will have to be told what to do, and that a senior will already know and be getting on with it. This is often the most useful distinguishing feature between them. I would expect a PhD candidate to be a senior, or one their way to becoming one, but I accept that opinions can differ.
I do not understand how the certificate of achievement can be considered as anything other then a significant accomplishment. In industry, I do not much care what subject you have mastered as it is unlikely to be relevant, and extremely unlikely that I will be able to ask you meaningful questions on it, but I do care that you have mastered a subject, and I will want to know how you solved problems and approached difficulties. For it is that ability to overcome obstacles in the pursuit of knowledge the makes you a master in the eyes of your peers.

To the original poster, I suggest you find a way to internalise those external pressures you say you need. Whether it is your diary or your professional pride that is applying the pressure, you need to find a way to keep focused and keep working when you are bored, tired, distracted and/or frustrated. When not only is no one pushing you, but when people are telling you that you are wasting your time, wasting their time, that you are wrong or that you have already failed.

  • 6
    That's just insulting, and terrible advice. Half of my PhD students are horrible in self-organization, and they are certainly not "wasting my time".
    – xLeitix
    Commented Nov 18, 2014 at 16:14
  • Note that a significant fraction (perhaps a majority) of students seeking a PhD are looking toward careers in academia, so they have no interest in working at a "company" in the first place. In academic research, one rarely faces the situation where the boss presents a problem and demands a solution. Commented Nov 18, 2014 at 16:21
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    The whole point of having a higher level certificate — Sorry, no, having the certificate has no point at all! Surely, even as an employer, you look at the applicant's actual accomplishments.
    – JeffE
    Commented Nov 18, 2014 at 17:22
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    To address your edit: In your terminology, I would say the entire point of getting a PhD is to make the transition from "junior" to "senior". In most fields, a student entering a PhD program definitely fits into your "junior" category. Commented Nov 19, 2014 at 4:19

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