Why do a PhD?
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Taking the step towards doing a PhD is a big decision, and one that shouldn't be made without the proper research and consideration. Once taken, however, it can be an extremely valuable experience and one that can set you up nicely in the future. Here we consider some of the things you should definitely think about before taking the plunge.
Will a PhD help my career?
Will doing a PhD boost your career options? Absolutely, but with some caveats. If you want to work in academia, for example in research or as a professor, then doing a PhD is essential. Having a PhD can also help you to land jobs in industry, for example working as an analyst or as an actuary. When applying for these jobs, your PhD is both a demonstration of your prior experience in running a research project, and an example of your motivation and self-discipline. Our Salary Report found, however, that while the gender pay gap is closing for PhD positions, women still earn less than men, and for senior positions, there still exists a 'glass ceiling' for women, meaning they are less likely to be chosen for these roles. Yes, the direction of travel may be the right one, but we are clearly still travelling with the handbrake on.
A PhD is also not essential for every job. If you know that you want to work in a field such as finance or accounting, then real-world job experience can be just as important when applying for jobs as academic qualifications. And there are some employers who will be put off by a candidate with a PhD who is applying for entry-level jobs, finding them to be overqualified. It's not a good idea to do a PhD just because you think it will help you generally to get a better job in the long run, as this may not be the case. The time you spend studying is time that could be spent accruing work experience. So before you make your decision really consider the specific role that you want or the field in which you want to work, and then see if a PhD would be helpful for that career path.
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How can I fund a PhD?
One of the most important issues to consider when thinking about a possible PhD is the question of funding. As working on a PhD is generally a full-time job, you will need funding to cover your living costs and other expenses. There are a number of sources of funding: you might get funding directly from the research budget of your supervisor, or the department in which you do your PhD; you might get funding from your university; or you might get funding from an external body such as the Wellcome Trust. If you are pursuing a PhD abroad, for example if you are Dutch but are doing a PhD in Germany, then you may be able to apply for funding from both the Dutch and German governmental bodies, doubling your chance of successfully receiving funding. You might also get partial funding from several of these sources.
Some students are so keen to do a PhD that they wish to start even if they do not have any funding. This, however, is not advisable. The amount of work which a PhD requires is immense (at least three years full time, often more), and agreeing to work this much for no payment is a recipe for disaster. If you can't get funding now, it's better to wait and apply for more funding rather than risking starting your project unfunded.
Is a PhD the right option for me?
You should also think about whether doing a PhD would suit you personally. Those who are interested in doing a PhD tend to be those who are academically inclined and who already enjoyed – hopefully thoroughly – doing a Bachelor's degree and a Master's degree. Those are certainly good qualities to have; however, a PhD is a rather different kettle of fish. A PhD requires you to come up with your own ideas and to work independently – essentially running your own research project. This is terrific for someone who values independence and exploratory learning, but can be a difficult adjustment for those who are more used to having strict guidelines and structure imposed on to them. For this reason, it's common for people to wait a few years after completing their graduate degree before doing a PhD, so they can gain some experience in managing their own time.
Another requirement for PhD students is a degree of self-confidence and assurance about both their work and themselves. Academia is a demanding environment and students often complain that supervisors give more negative than positive feedback. To be successful in a PhD, you'll need to be able to take criticism without becoming discouraged. It's also not uncommon for supervisors to be extremely demanding, so in order to preserve your life outside of work, you'll need to be an effective self-advocate. This is another area in which a few years of work experience can help to build up your confidence, making you a better PhD candidate in the process.
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 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 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, and mentors about your project ideas and whether they would make an achievable and worthwhile project. Finally, 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 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 your PhD project?
Another big factor in how your PhD will pan out 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 more enjoyable.
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