Should I Do a PhD?
Here's a big question that's on the mind of many master's and undergraduate students: should I do a PhD? The idea of dedicating three years or more of your life to original research is both exciting and terrifying, and the experience can be either exhilarating or harrowing, or usually a mix of both. Today we'll take a look at some of the issues to consider when you are thinking about applying for a PhD program.
If you're currently mulling over whether to do a PhD, check out our PhD listings to find the right course for you.
Do you want to go into academia?
The main reason that most people start a PhD is so that they can begin a career in academia. However, doing a PhD and working in academia is very different from studying from an undergraduate or master's degree. You will need to be much more self directed and self motivated, and you will be more independent in your work, but it is hard to know if this environment will suit you until you try it.
A good frame of reference for PhD work is the project that you perform as part of your master's or the final year of your bachelor's degree. Did you enjoy coming up with a concept and finding a way to test or explore that concept in a thesis? If yes, then you may be suited to a PhD.
Be realistic about job prospects
Many people growing up today have heard all their life that they have to have a good education to get a good job. And though this may be true, a high level of education is in no way a guarantee that a highly paid job will follow. Some subjects are better than others in terms of job outlook: subjects like hard sciences or computer science often lead to fulfilling jobs even if these positions are not necessarily within academia. But other subjects like the arts and humanities produce many more PhD graduates than there are jobs, leading to extremely stiff competition and many unemployed or underemployed graduates.
This doesn't mean that doing a PhD is necessarily a bad idea – many students find doing a PhD to be deeply personally rewarding and the most exciting educational experience of their lives – but it does mean that you shouldn't do a PhD because you think you'll get a better job at the end. In most cases, if you want a particular job then you're better off gaining work experience than studying for an extended postgraduate degree.
Where will funding for your PhD come from?
One aspect of doing a PhD that is not always considered first but definitely should be is where the funding will come from. Doing a PhD is expensive: from the cost of setting up and running experiments, to expenses incurred travelling to conferences, not to mention the considerable expenses of supporting yourself for at least three years. Some people are so desperate to do a PhD that they will offer to fund themselves, by getting support from a partner or family or by living off their savings while they study.
But this is generally a bad idea. Doing a PhD is a full-time job that should be paid as such. Working without funding is demoralising and arguably shows a lack of respect on the part of the institution and the supervisor. If they think that you are good enough to do a PhD, they should pay you at least the minimum you need to get by while you work.
The systems for funding PhDs vary from country to country, so in Europe you might be first accepted onto a PhD program at a university and then apply for external funding, while in the US you might apply for a PhD and automatically be granted funding by the university if you are accepted.
Another option which is common is for PhD students to receive half funding, which they supplement to full funding by working for their university as a teaching assistant or research assistant. In some situations, working a role during the PhD can be a good way to gain experience – especially if teaching experience is important for your career goals – but remember that teaching duties are a big source of extra stress and can require many additional hours of work on top of the actual hours of classroom teaching.
Whichever funding route you take, it is advisable that you have at least three years of full-time funding agreed to in writing before starting a PhD. Don't be afraid to ask explicitly about funding and where it will come from. It is sadly common for people to start a PhD with limited funding, then for that funding to dry up after a year or two so that they have to drop out. It is better to defer your PhD application for a year and to take that time to secure full funding than to jump straight into the PhD without a firm funding plan in place.
Is your PhD project right for you?
Sometimes people can get caught up in the idea of doing a PhD without really thinking about whether they should study the particular project they have chosen. There are generally two ways to choose a PhD project: either you apply for a specific role as a PhD student in an existing lab or group, in which case your project will be largely assigned to you by your supervisor, or you come up with your own project idea and submit this proposal to a grad school or department.
The first path is safer in that it involves a project which has been chosen by people with a great deal of experience of PhDs and the field, so you can be confident that the project is likely realistically achievable and will contribute usefully to the field. The second path allows you to follow your own passions and to investigate your own ideas, but it is riskier because there is a greater chance that your project is too big to complete in a reasonable time frame, that your experiment might not work, or that the project might not be perceived as useful by others in the field.
Take time to consider not only if you want to do a PhD in general, but also whether you want to do this specific PhD. Get as much feedback as you can from supervisors, friends doing PhDs, former teachers, mentors, and others about your project ideas and whether they would make an achievable and worthwhile project. And be realistic about your interests and strengths – if you've never liked statistics then doing a project heavily based on data analysis is unlikely to make you happy. Ideally your project should be a subject that inspires you and excites you, and to which you feel like you could make a valuable contribution with your ideas.
Are the institution, department, and supervisors right for you?
Another big factor in how your PhD will be is the environment in which you will work. Doing a PhD can be isolating and you need people around you who will support and help you out. Some academic groups are small and insular, others are large and diverse, but in either case you need to be among people who understand your work and will give you the time that you need.
It's hard to know in advance if your supervisor will be difficult, but you can get a good idea by talking to other PhD students who have them as a supervisor and listening to their experiences. Many PhD students will be happy to share this information with you if you are thinking about applying to the same supervisor.
Finally, don't feel as if your only opportunity to do a PhD is the program that you apply to first. You can apply to several programs at the same time and see which interview process excites you the most. Or you can wait until you find the right supervisor or institution which will make your experience so much better.
You can find more advice on doing a PhD and on other academic topics here:
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