In my work as a careers adviser with PhD students and post-doctoral researchers I have seen those who have commented that they “wished they had thought, and known, more about doing a PhD before committing to it”. They may have made this comment with the benefit of hindsight and actual experience but for some it meant that they did not enjoy their PhD as much as they might have done or that they had taken longer to adjust to its different demands. In both of these situations there could have been an effect on the progress of their research and also on their confidence especially as they approached the end of their degree and were making a decision about what to do next. I have also worked with students in the early or mid-stages of their PhD who are wondering whether to leave before completing their degree and almost always they will reflect on the fact that they did not really know what they were taking on or that they were reacting to others’ suggestions about what they should do. They had not really considered why they should do a PhD and so when you are reading this article keep considering why YOU should do a PhD? It is your decision to commit to a significant period of time and work and it needs to be something you approach positively and with enthusiasm but also with realism about the pros and cons of undertaking original research.
Who does a PhD?
The idea of the “perpetual student”, i.e. someone who stays on after an undergraduate and/or masters degree, to do a PhD, is perhaps a traditional view of PhDs. Some of you reading this will fall into the category of those who work through the tiers of higher education in this sequential fashion (it does not necessarily make you a “perpetual student” though!). The PhD population today is very diverse and not made up entirely of 21 to 25-year-olds who have stayed in educational settings for the majority of their lives. Others may be considering a return to education in order to change your career or as part of your professional development within an existing career. Some of you may be considering coming to study in the UK independently or with support from an organisation in your home country. Whatever your situation it is very important that you take time to recognise and understand why you are making this commitment and what it entails.
Reasons why not and why
As with any decision, there are positive and negative reasons for our choices, so let’s get the negative reasons out of the way first. If you are considering undertaking a PhD because you:
‘can’t think of anything else to do, want to stay in the same place as your friends or a partner, think it’s an easy option or have been told by others you ought to’
Then these reasons, especially the first three, are not going to sustain you through the most challenging times of your research degree and will probably mean that you do not investigate what a PhD really involves. In the case of the final reason, it can be very flattering if one of your tutors suggests that you should do a PhD and you should certainly seriously consider it but make sure that you investigate it in the same was as if it was your own idea. You still need to check out whether it is the right option for you. Some of you may be influenced by the expectations of family and friends, perhaps they want you to do a PhD because they didn’t get the chance or maybe they are trying to give you the confidence to achieve something that you are capable of. Whatever the situation the message is the same, stop, research what is involved and whether it is what you really want to do?
Let’s move to the positives of why YOU should do a PhD? Broadly the positive reasons can be classified into:
You WANT to or You NEED to
I asked some academic colleagues to give me a reason why someone should do a PhD and all came back with statements that had the word “passion” in them. This is having a real passion for your subject and an area of it that you want to investigate further. My colleagues also offered some interesting comments, from my perspective as a careers adviser, on the reality of making a decision to do a PhD even when you have this passion. Some commented on the need to consider doing the right PhD for you and not just any PhD, and I think it is important that you take this seriously as it can be dangerous to compromise too far and embark on research that you are not interested in just because it will lead to a PhD.
Interestingly my academic colleagues also wanted you to look ahead and consider where your PhD may take you? Do you want to continue on in an academic career or apply for jobs in industry or other organisations where a PhD is a requirement or will help you to work at a different level? Interestingly research on the career intentions of PhD students, undertaken by Vitae (What do researchers want to do? The career intentions of doctoral researchers 2012, Vitae), revealed that less than one third had firm career ideas even in the latter stages of their PhD. This statistic is concerning as it may mean that PhD students miss opportunities to add to their range of experience. I am not suggesting that you have to have an exact career plan in place at the start of your PhD but doing some research on where it may take you is valuable. For those already in a career and undertaking a PhD as part of their professional development, or those who are viewing a PhD as part of a career change into academia, they should also look ahead and ensure that plans for the future are realistic and achievable.
As a careers adviser reviewing the advice and suggestions offered by my academic colleagues on why you should do a PhD it reinforces my view that making a decision to undertake a PhD involves the same steps as any other career decision, you need to find out as much as possible about what a PhD really involves? Alongside considering where your passions lie and where they might lead to I would also suggest that you need to research such things as:
- The working environment and how you will adapt to any differences with your current situation
- Working with a supervisor
- What funding is available and what it covers, i.e. fees only or fees and living costs?
- Most importantly what behaviours, skills and experiences YOU have that will make you a successful and productive researcher.
These points, and others are covered in more detail in 7 PhD Application Tips.