Doing a PhD

When I was a Masters student, I spent a lot of time thinking about whether I should do a PhD. And now, people often ask me if they should do one, and what doing a PhD is like. So, if you’re thinking about continuing in higher education, here are some personal thoughts on doing a PhD and working in academia.

Pros of doing a PhD

Several faculty members in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences of Emory University’s graduation ceremony, May 12, 2008. By Uri Rosenheck. From Wikimedia Commons.

If you decide to study for a PhD, then you get to do something that you are passionate about, something that you think is important, and something that could make a difference. This is very satisfying and highly motivating. You also get to travel the world, going on fieldwork and to conferences, meet lots of exciting and interesting people, and have lots of very exciting experiences. You have far more flexibility in how and where you work and in what you do; your work is self-driven, and you decide yourself the direction that you would like to take it in (with guidance from your supervisor, of course!). You can work from home, work in the garden, work at night – whatever best suits you. If you want to go to a conference, and you can find the money to go (and there are many sources of funding for these things), then you can go, and present your work to the best in the field. I thoroughly enjoyed doing my PhD (OK, I was stressed out at times as well!), but I do think that my job satisfaction was higher than most of my friends, and I was doing something I thought important and interesting.

Cons of doing a PhD

A note of clarification: doing a PhD is not like continuing your undergraduate or masters degree. It is a job with typically long hours, pressure and stress, and you don’t get the long summer holidays that the undergraduates get!

Doing a PhD is not all fun and games, and you need to think carefully about whether it would suit you. You’re not an (undergraduate) student but you will still have the finances of one; your friends will buy houses and start to go on expensive holidays and things that you just can’t afford. It can make you feel younger than your friends, or left behind. Job security in academia is notoriously bad, with a position at a university not guaranteed at all. When you finish your PhD, you will be competing for jobs in academia with many many other very highly qualified young scientists. Yet if you decide to leave academia, most large organisations will expect you to enter their training schemes as a graduate. So, do a PhD because you want to and because it is something that is important to you, not to enhance your employment prospects.

From PhD comics.
From PhD comics.

PhD students are also expected to work hard, and it can be a very stressful job. Writing up is notoriously hard; a long, drawn-out processes that is emotionally draining. But if you’re motivated, dedicated and enthusiastic, you’ll finish that book.

Considerations for a young scientist

Think about whether a PhD would suit you. You need to be good at working on your own, be highly organised and efficient, and be self motivated. If you’re more of a team person, think about whether you’d enjoy working in a lab on your own for three years. If you need deadlines and urgency to motivate you, you’re unlikely to get them – you’ll be expected to set your own deadlines and keep to them yourself. But if you’re enthusiastic, motivated and well organised, go for it!

So, you’re hooked – I haven’t managed to put you off, and you’ve decided that you want to do a PhD. So, here are some things to consider. Firstly, what to study? Take a look around at university websites and see what topics are on offer. Email the potential supervisor and ask about funding opportunities. If you have an idea of your own, email people and see if they’d be willing to supervise you. You may find (depending on your field) that, although people are easily willing to offer you a PhD, funding opportunities are much harder to come by, and they are awarded competitively. Staying in your own institution may be logistically easier, but think about moving on – you’ll come into contact with different people and different research groups, which will help your growth as an independent researcher.

Secondly, what should you look for in a supervisor? A young, enthusiastic lecturer is likely to have more time to give you. A more experienced professor may have better contacts and more funding, and there may be more chance of a position as a research associate at the end of your PhD. However, they are likely to be away more, and to have less time. I think that the most important consideration is to choose a supervisor that you get on with, and that is researching something you think exciting and interesting.

What opportunities are available in the department? Things to ask could be, are there opportunities for teaching – to earn some extra cash and get that crucial experience? Are there training and development opportunities for graduate students? Is there a departmental fund into which you can dip to go to conferences or do fieldwork?

Advice to young scientists

Already doing a PhD? Then there are some things that you should consider to enhance your employability once you have finished. It’s a publish or perish world – so make sure you start thinking about publishing papers from the start. Plan your publishing, and think about where and what you’ll publish.

Going to conferences and networking is vital for your career. Talk to established researchers and make sure they know who you are and what you’re doing. If they ever interview you, then it may just help!

Take every opportunity given to you. Say no to nothing. Even if it means you have to stay up all night. Supervisor going on fieldwork? Ask if he needs a research assistant. Someone can’t do a lecture? Offer your services. Undergraduate field trip? Go along as a demonstrator. Read up on the work they’re doing so you’re actually of some use! These things are all CV points.

Try and apply for some external funding, especially if it gets you somewhere, like visiting another lab and getting exposure to other people and other ways of working. Going to an additional conference would also be good.

Taking an interest in outreach and education is important, and looks good on your CV. But remember that what really will get you that elusive RA job or lectureship when you finish is papers, papers, papers.

Working in academia

You’re doing a PhD but you’re not sure if you want to stay in academia. Well, I think that much of the above applies; working as an RA is similar to a PhD, you’re just expected to know what you’re doing a bit more and have more of a free reign! So, it’s rewarding and enjoyable, there are great travel opportunities and you get to work with some of the best and brightest. Your work is self-driven and very rewarding. Teaching bright students and post-graduates is great, and working with the less able students, when they show improvement, is rewarding. Pay is not great, but you are paid partly in ‘cool’, as I read somewhere recently!

The main issue with working in academia is that the nature of the career path means that you could be well into your thirties by the time you get a permanent job. This job insecurity puts lots of people off, especially if you have a partner who you keep either (a) dragging around the country, or (b) are forced to maintain a long-distance relationship with. Academia can also be a cut-throat, aggressive world, with funding awarded competitively, harsh reviewer comments, and people being protective about their own work. So, you need a thick skin and ambition to succeed! Again, the mantra is publish, publish, publish.


Here are some resources for PhD students:

The Thesis Whisperer blog

PhD Comics for a little light relief!

Further reading

Article by Bethan Davies.

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