Ricky, a final year PhD student at UCL, shares his thoughts on choosing to do a PhD or not:
The Ocean Before Us
In the years spent working towards your PhD, your sense of self worth is put through the wringer, time and time again under the benevolent questioning of those around you. “What exactly is it you’re doing?” your family will ask, cautiously, to avoid an academic lecture. Over dinner, your date will nervously ask if “You’re still a student?”, thinly veiling their shock and bemusement. “Are you trying to avoid the real world a bit longer?” your friends will jest, as they begin to climb the ladder in their graduate careers.
The response to this questioning usually requires a bit of soul searching. Am I really doing original research or just jumping through the hoops put before me? Am I a researcher or a just a student? Do I really want to stay in academia? Why am I doing this?
In the spirit of academic reference, I defer to Sir Isaac Newton, who supposedly remarked shortly before his death:
‘I don’t know what I may seem to the world, but as to myself, I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.’
There are those who go into a PhD solely to meet the requirements for a specific industry job, or because they are willing to devote their lives entirely in pursuit of an academic career, no matter the cost. For those of us in the gray zone of uncertainty and self-doubt, the allure of spending several years obtaining a PhD is normally to spend some time, like Newton, exploring the depths of our field and trying to discover new truths about the world.
If I were to give only a single piece of advice to those considering a PhD, it would be to make sure you actually enjoy working in your field. A lot. In the midst of funding issues, the wild-west culture of academic self promotion, politics and controversial theories, the thing that will keep you going is that at your core, you are interested and excited by your subject. That however, is only the first requirement and on it’s own, maybe not enough to justify spending the better part of your twenties, (or later if returning to university some time after your undergraduate), chasing a doctorate.
The unromantic truth is that the decision to undertake a PhD is dependent on so many different things, each of which merit some consideration before you commit three to seven years of your life. We’re now warned that the academic job market has shifted considerably, that a PhD carries absolutely no guarantee of an academic job and that permanent positions near the top, the coveted lectureships and professorships, are more competitive than ever to obtain.
Nature’s annual graduate student survey revealed, last month, that while PhD students tend to love what they do, it can sometimes come at a cost to their mental wellbeing, finances and personal relationships. From personal experience, these issues can often remain under the surface in the academic environment where one typically puts up a brave face in the day-to-day tasks, only complaining ‘ironically’ or at exasperated post-work drinks.
It’s not all doom and gloom though, the survey also supports my personal observations that few people regret doing a PhD and the majority do go on to find engaging and rewarding work, often outside of academia.
In fact, one doesn’t need to be in the formal academic system to play on the shores of Netwon’s “great ocean of truth”. The private sector, start ups, NGOs and government all offer roles that allow for bright, curious people to exercise innovation and creativity. Which begs the question, is a PhD for you?
No single article, from me or anyone else, can answer that question. But getting a variety of perspectives and considering all the angles can improve your chances of making a suitable choice (a valued skill for a researcher).
I’ve had my ups and downs during the PhD and with one year left, the ultimate future of my academic career remains uncertain. Despite that, I have no regrets from spending the last two years doing research in the field I love (Physics) and there’s a hundred different reasons that give me the confidence to proclaim that the choice was right for me. Before you jump into a decision, take some time to read around and talk to those doing postgraduate degrees. The final decision can alter the course of your future and is ultimately yours to make.