So you want to do a PhD? 10 things to consider before starting

There are a number of reasons why you might want to do a PhD. However, doing it to get a Dr in front of your name is probably not the best reason. Choosing to do a PhD is no easy decision. Here’s a list of ten things to consider prior to pursuing a PhD.

Christ Church College, Oxford in the summer.
Christ Church College, Oxford (Delfi de la Rua)

1. Do you need it?

What are your motivations for wanting to do a PhD? Do you need one to achieve your goal? It is true that if you want to remain in Academia, then a PhD will open more doors, allowing you to secure that elusive tenure-track position and become a Professor.

However, let’s assume for now that you don’t want to remain in academia. Consider the Engineering sector, for example, a PhD might end up making you overqualified for most roles. Some sectors value the four or so years of work experience a lot higher than a PhD. On the other hand, some roles in the Science sector may require one to show proficiency in independent research and laboratory skills. Others in the Humanities may value it for increased credibility.

The key point here is to reflect on your motivations before pursuing a PhD. It’s a lengthy commitment and you want to be sure that it helps you with your future aspirations.

2. Commitment

PhDs are long. Hard and long. Make sure you are motivated and passionate about your subject. Because there will come days when you want to throw it all and quit. In those moments, you’ll need to remind yourself of the reasons you chose to do a PhD. Maintaining a passion for your subject will no doubt help.

3. Have you done the research?

You’re likely doing a PhD to become an expert in a particular field. Have you researched this field though? What is the state of the art? How does it link to what you already know and have studied? What are the biggest challenges to researchers in this field? What is its trajectory? Who are the main players?  Which universities do the best research in this field?

Answering these questions, or at the very least thinking about them, will help you to define your niche more clearly and affirm your topic of interest. Make sure to read profiles from universities, and check out recent publications. If you can talk to people currently doing PhDs on similar topics in the group your like, that will give you the greatest insight, allowing you to make the right decision.

4. Consider the cost

There are two main types of cost to consider: financial and opportunity. Be sure to reflect carefully on whether you are able to afford to do a PhD. If you are unable to find a fully funded programme or a scholarship, then you may find yourself in a lot of debt pursuing a PhD. Furthermore, the years you spend studying and researching are years you are not doing something else, like getting work experience. On a more personal level, be sure that pursuing a PhD does not mean you are sacrificing other things like relationships. Sure, you can consider a PhD as an investment for the future, but be sure to evaluate the costs prior to starting.

5. Go through your network

Networking is such a cliché, and to be honest, I really hate the term. But no matter what my views are no the word, the fact of the matter is networks are powerful. Is there anyone in your network who is currently doing a PhD or has completed one? Can you speak to them about their experiences and learn from them? Do you know any professors who are working in an area that you might want to or doing research that you like? Most likely, these will be from your undergrad days. Hit them up with an email to book in some time for a quick call to discuss their research – who knows, you might even end up finding a fully funded position with them!

Another thing your university may offer is seminars, workshops or conferences for undergrads and alumni. These are a great opportunity for discovering new researchers and making contacts for the future. Even in these Covid times, there are plenty of webinars and virtual events – you just have to search them out.

6. Read, read, read

One of the most prolific authors of our time, Stephen King, wrote “If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.” A lot of the outputs in academia are written articles. To be a good academic is to be a good writer. One of the best ways to develop your writing is to read extensively.

Obviously you should read journal articles and publications from your potential research area, but also read around the subject. See how it fits into the wider world. Read related content written for a lay audience. These written perspectives will broaden your mind and allow your own writing to be better pitched for a given audience.

7. Not all PhDs are the same

You may want to do a PhD in a field that your super passionate about, but it may turn out to be in a really selective niche that doesn’t really fit into wider academia. Now this may be fine if it leads to opportunities outside of academia, but if that’s not the case either, then you might be setting yourself up for a disappointment upon graduating.

Most people see PhDs as an investment into their future. Being an investment, you’d want to ensure a good chance of returns. Unless you’re a wealthy self-funded student who can afford to go into a programme purely out of passion for the subject and not a care for future career prospects, you want to ensure your PhD programme and topic is somewhat strategically chosen. Try and not make it too specific in an unemployable niche. Go for something a bit more interdisciplinary if possible, or something that will allow you learn a range of skills.

According to a Royal Society study, only 7 out of every 200 Science PhD graduates gets a permanent position in academia. By keeping your options open from the start, you will be more desirable after your PhD, especially outside of academia.

8. Supervisor selection

It’s often said to not choose a job, but to choose a boss. Academia is no exception to this rule. In fact, because you’ll be working with primarily them for the vast majority of your time during a PhD, supervisor selection is critically important. The source of so much discontent in academia can be put down to a poor supervisor or a poor supervisory relationship. Avoid all the disgruntlement by researching your supervisor in advance, before you jump into a PhD programme.

I’d highly recommend you to contact current members of the research group to ask them about the supervisor. How do they treat their students and ECRs? What is their working style? Are they micro-managerial, or laissez-faire? Do they value face time over productivity? Understanding your supervisor and finding a good fit with them is often more important than finding a good institution or PhD programme.

9. Take a break

You’ve been studying for a long time already. Are you sure you want to jump right back in? Take some time out. I’m not saying take a gap year and go travelling, just do something else. I actually became a school teacher for two years before returning to university to complete my PhD. The time you take out will only strengthen your decision when you ultimately choose to enter into a PhD programme. You will likely be more motivated, and better rested.

10. It’s only a job!

There is a lot of pressure in academia to be working long days, well into the early hours, and during the weekends. However, this is a terrible routine to get into and will likely lead to burnout, depression and you ultimately quitting your PhD. Yes, there will be times when you have to work longer days because of looming deadlines, but don’t let it become the norm.

The reason I’m including this in a post on things to consider before starting your PhD is because you want to go into the PhD programme treating it like a job. Since you define your own schedule, and have the flexibility of being a student, it can sometimes be hard to treat a PhD like a 9-5. Try to though. You’ll thank me later when you realise you still have some semblance of work-life balance!

An hour of preparation is worth ten of prayer

A. Trivedi

A PhD is one of the greatest accomplishments you can achieve. But try to make sure you’ve thought it through before you start. Hopefully this post has given you some things to consider and help you to make the right decision for you. All the best!

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