Jul 3, 2020 | What You Should Know Before Starting a PhD
Should I Get a PhD?
This blog post is for Master students who are at the end of their Master’s programs. Those who wonder if the PhD track is best for them, or rather, they should go for the industry job instead. If you happen to be a PhD candidate or PhD graduate reading this post, it would be great if you share your thoughts in the comments below!
Before Starting a PhD: Why Is This an Important Choice, and Why Is This an Unimportant Choice at the Same Time?
First of all, working with Master’s students on their career developments feels great! In the blog post “The tree” dedicated to how employment changes people’s personality (in a negative way), it was explained why: the vast majority of fresh graduates have energy and a positive mindset, are idealistic, not cynical, and willing to work hard — especially if it’s for a good cause. But if they step into the wrong environment, then after just a few years they might become cynical, broken people with a learned helplessness syndrome. That’s why it is so important to make a good, or at least, a well-calculated decision of “where to go” at the start.
This decision is hard though. As a typical Master’s student, you didn’t have much practical working experience just yet. You just don’t know what works for you in the working environment and what doesn’t. With jobs, it’s a little bit like with relationships. Most people don’t succeed at the first go, as they don’t know at that point which types of people they would resonate with. Even if you have some internships under your belt, an intern and an employee are two substantially different types of experience. The expectations towards an intern are typically much lower than those towards an employee, so you can’t compare the two.
The Long Journey Ahead
So, you need to accept that your first job after graduation is just a starting point in the long, 40-45 year-long journey. It’s going to be the longest journey in your whole life. You will most likely need to change your life plans and strategy on the job market at least a few times in the process. Hoping that your first job will end up with a straight career path towards the top is like hoping that your high school sweetheart will become your spouse and that you will live happily together ever after. Not a very likely scenario.
That’s why in your first job, it is important to choose an environment in which you can grow and develop in many directions depending on what you will discover about yourself in the process. This choice is important because you need to find an environment in which your natural potential won’t be blocked. At the same time, it is not as important in terms of where you end up as a professional in the long run.
The Right and the Wrong Reasons to Choose Academia
This is a bit controversial subject. There are diverse opinions on whether it’s a good idea to go for a PhD with an assumption that it is just an additional 3-5 years-long professional training before starting a career in industry. To my mind, this is not a good motivation as you always need to think of the alternatives. What (constructive) things would you do with the same amount of time if you didn’t go for a PhD?
Those who go straight to industry after Master’s, have enough time to gain practical experience and build expertise in their branch of industry before they hit 30. So, they usually end up in better positions than those who spend a few years behind closed doors doing their PhDs first. Also, since the number of PhD graduates substantially increased within the last two decades, PhD in itself is no longer unique enough to make you a special commodity in any way. For this reason, it is advisable to choose a PhD only when you are a fanatic of science. And, if you seriously consider an academic career as a way of living.
What’s the Worst Possible Scenario?
The worst possible scenario is to go for a PhD just because you have no better idea of what to do with yourself. In that scenario, you just want to postpone your career decisions by another few years. Roughly, 15-20% (!) of all PhD candidates have this exact motivation. Take into account that the time in your life in which you will be doing your PhD, which is typically some time between 23-30 years old, is also the time when most people reach the top of their creativity and life energy. After that, your energy level and the affinity to take personal risks will rapidly start decreasing.
So, do you really want to spend this time locking yourself behind a closed door and struggling with complex research problems? Only to buy yourself more time to think about your future? For most people, graduate school is physically and emotionally draining. Going for it as “the easy solution” is comparable to going to Marines thinking that it’s just giving yourself more time before you start your adult life. Frankly, no one with that motivation would ever be happy in academia.
What’s the Best Possible Scenario?
To sum up, the best motivation to go to academia, is probably to be deep in love with the research topic from your Master’s. You feel you are talented in this discipline, and you can see yourself working as a researcher for the rest of your life. Of course, you will have a chance to verify and change your plans later. But if you don’t see yourself as a professional researcher from the very start, it’s probably better to skip the PhD and move straight to industry.
You also need to take into account that even if you are in love with your research subject, the numbers are against you. The probability of landing a tenured position is low, and the numbers get worse every year. Thus, it’s better to assume from the very beginning that the academic career might just not work out in the long run. You should prepare for grad school as if you were preparing for the Olympic Games rather than as if you were crafting a career for life (as also explained in the post “We Are the Champions. Leaving Academia After PhD Feelin’ Good“).
Is That For Your Family, Or Is It For You?
Lastly, remember that it should be your decision rather than your family’s decision. In many countries of the world, such as India, a researcher with a PhD title is a noble profession, a sign of a life success, and the reason for the family to be proud. Many Indian students admit that in hindsight, they see that they were influenced by their family while taking this crucial decision in their life. And, they regret it.
Academia vs Other Options
Academia, startup, corporation, public institution, or perhaps, your own company? First, there are no better or worse working environments. After all, every environment is built by people. What is important, is to find one environment where people have similar qualities, or values, to yours. To some people out there, the quality of life largely improves after moving to industry. Others were heavily disappointed with the industry life and are much better off in academia. Again, this is what you will most likely need to discover from your own experience, without blaming yourself for miscalibration. Especially in case you will need to change your working environment in the process.
Briefly, the major differences between academia and other working environments are as follows.
(-) More idealists than elsewhere, yet the rules stay the same. Many academics are in deep love with science/knowledge, value the intellectual qualities higher than practical aspects of the job such as the salary. They don’t use elbows while working with other people. Yet, the rules for getting promoted in academia are as harsh as everywhere else. If you don’t develop a thick skin and don’t start thinking strategically early on, it might result in deep disappointments and burnout down the line.
(-) You are on your own. This can be taboo in academia, but teams are only on paper. At the end of the day, everyone needs to take care of their own CV. In fact, the way of incentivizing people in academic projects does not promote teamwork at all. Every single project results in a research paper. Your place in the sequence of the authors determines how your scientific achievement is perceived by outsiders, including grant agencies who decide about your future in the field.
The Daily Life Might Differ From What You Expect as a Laic
It is also worth considering how your imagination about academic work looks, and confronting it with reality. Many young people fancy working as researchers as they are fascinated by the vision of studying topics such as astronomy, the origins of the Universe, wildlife, human cognition, ecology, or some specific sociological phenomena that they find extremely important in today’s world. For this reason, they apply to join graduate school expecting that from now on, they will be spending their days surrounding by likeminded people, and discussing the big problems in the world.
Well, unfortunately, in most types of academic projects, such moments are extremely rare. The daily life is all about sitting in your office and reading the specialistic literature, planning projects in every detail, meticulous and often tedious execution of these projects. Whenever you join Friday Afternoon Drinks with your colleagues from grad school, you are all typically too tired to even think about work anymore. The leading topics become: planning vacation, concerts in the city, who-is-dating-whom, the plans for the next Day Out, games between professors in the institute, whose contract ends next and how to possibly keep this person around by landing a grant, etc. Anything but science!
Occasionally, you will present your progress at a seminar to your colleagues or during 1-1 meeting straight to your boss, or your supervisor. Once or twice a year, you might also attend a conference where you have a chance to get into more philosophical dispute about what you do in an international and informal setting. But that would be it! In daily life, the work is systematic, structured, quite mechanistic, and often even boring. For this reason, many people coming to academia only because they dreamt about doing science after watching fascinating documentaries at the Discovery channel for years and years, soon get disappointed and often drop out.
On The Dysfunctional Teamwork in Academia
As a result, academics have an incentive to get their name onto as many papers as possible. While at the same time, doing as little as possible for each one of the projects they participate in. Their publication record will be the major factor that the granting agencies take into account while dividing the money for future projects. Furthermore, since academics prioritize finishing projects in which they are the leading authors over other projects, they often delay their input to the projects in which they are supporting authors. As a result, they successfully block them.
The situation is not any better when we look at the employer-employee relationship. Unlike in industry, in academia bosses and their employees often have contradictory goals. Namely, your boss often wants you to exploit their own research ideas that they developed a long, long time ago. So, you work on expanding their fame even further rather than working out your own future line of research.
Typically, there is also less mobility in changing the boss as in many countries (such as the Netherlands), you are paid a salary straight from your lab’s budget and not from the department’s budget. It means that you belong to your boss. The situation is different in some countries such as the US where graduate schools offer fellowships. In such a setting, theoretically, you can change your lab affiliation within the same graduate school in the process. However, it makes your life harder and is often perceived as a failure.
You Will Need Lots of Patience…
(-) You will not experience gratification on the daily basis. In companies, employees usually need to accomplish several small tasks during the week. They get some small personal gratification for completing each one of them. This reward is often as little as a thumb up and smile, but that also counts! On the contrary, academics need to develop sacred patience as the days of triumph are scarce. One or twice a year, you will publish something and celebrate. Once or twice a year you will present at a conference. Other than that, research is a peaceful grind away from the world. So, you need to motivate yourself or find a peer group to support each other. Or otherwise, your life will get hard.
(-) Games. You can expect that once in a while, there will an extra author(s) on your paper. They did nothing for the project but are listed as co-authors only because some professor awes something to another professor. Or, because the project is a part of a consortium, or so. In fact, there are lots of games to be played around you. You will need to tolerate these games to survive in academia. However, this is material for a whole book so let’s skip the details here.
(+/-) Unlike in other fields, in academia, you are often expected to have experience working abroad to get a permanent academic contract. This might be good news or bad news depending on how much fond of traveling and relocating you are.
(+) You contribute to human heritage. If it matters to you that your work will be known to the public and remembered even after your death, it is the place. for you!
(+) Earn for learning. This is also one of the few places on the market where you are paid for learning. If you have a natural curiosity and affinity to drill deep into problems and learning about them in every detail, academia might be for you.
(+) You put your name on your work. This might sound like a detail, but for many people it is an important aspect. While in academia, you put your own name on every single research paper. It then becomes public and visible to everyone around the globe. In industry, on the other hand, the whole team produces a new product or a document under the brand of the company. The public opinion doesn’t know the names of the direct contributors. For academics switching to industry, it is often disappointing to realize that they are no longer recognized as authors of their work. Of course, a good manager should make you feel essential for the team. Yet still, your name won’t be mentioned in the history books even if you did something truly groundbreaking.
Sharing Is Caring
(+) You are encouraged to share your know-how. As mentioned in the blog post, “Things learned in science, for the good and for the bad,” one of the things that can be hard after starting a company, is the realization that you are no longer able to openly share your know-how. In the private sector, the company’s know-how is under strict protection. Everyone who breaks the rules would likely be fired. Companies don’t organize international conferences so that everyone can share with representatives of other companies what they did in their projects in every detail. No one shares their pipelines so that their results can be reproduced. So, if sharing what you do with the public opinion matters to you, academia is the environment to go for.
(+) If you successfully climb up the ladder, you have a chance to get a tenure position. It basically means that you are going to get a lifelong appointment and you won’t ever need to apply for a job again. Only academics have this luxury.
How Is Academia Structured?
Many people outside academia believe that the academic path looks like follows. PhD candidate —> Postdoc —> Professor. In fact, it is much more complicated than that. To a large extent, it depends on the country, as the structure of the academic system is very different around the world. Typically, PhD graduates need to jump over more hurdles than just one or two Postdocs on their way to land tenure. It’s a 10-15-or-more years-long journey. Within this time, many extenuating circumstances can happen. For example, equipment that you are working on can become obsolete which can affect your further career opportunities.
How Can You Prepare For a PhD?
There is a huge difference between landing a PhD contract and landing a good PhD contract. Two factors are crucial of course: (1) to land the topic that you find truly fascinating, (2) to get under the wings of a good supervisor and mentor. The second factor is usually even more important than the first, for a simple reason. Even the best project will be spoiled by an incompetent or a sociopathic supervisor. Many Master’s students undervalue the importance of the supervisor in the project. They get excited by interesting topics and go for it. This lack of strategy often backfires…
To find the right supervisor, you will need to spend more time on networking and visiting labs. But believe me, the effort will eventually pay off. And, you should ask the current and former students of a given professor about their experience from working together. It’s good to ask them about “3 positive things versus one negative thing they can say about their boss.“ In this way, they can honestly share one sincere downside of the person without feeling guilty for it.
Furthermore, it’s important to keep in mind that a good PhD is also about the environment you work in. It’s good to make sure that you will also have daily contact with someone assigned as your daily supervisor. And, that you are going to join a graduate school. Graduate schools are like clouds where dozens (or even hundreds) of students complete their PhDs in parallel. In you don’t have an environment, you might feel isolated and demotivated after a few months.
Don’t Wait for Others to Create a Plan For You
Moreover, before you launch your academic career properly, you will need to have a plan. Academia is a complex environment because the currency in academia is dual. While companies aim to just increase their profits, academics need to first produce papers to attract grants later. And, it’s important to choose a topic that has a good potential to publish. Or, a good potential to pivot if any major problems with the project emerge in the process.
Even within one lab, there might be a high variety in project publishability. One student might have a wonderful project from which they can produce multiple high-impact publications. While a student next door might have a project that can result in one paper at best. And, for worse, the journals interested in this type of material have one order of magnitude lower impact factor. Choosing the right supervisor might be 50% of the overall success, and choosing the right project is another 30%. The work put into the projects, is only the remaining 20% of the success, unfortunately.
“Just a School”
Many PhD candidates hear from their supervisors that the graduate school is “just a school.” Namely, that they should not be fixated on publications as the main point of the PhD is to learn and produce a good quality work rather than publish. Supervisors often say this as they believe that taking off the publication pressure from the students will make them more relaxed… and more likely to publish. Beware of this! If you buy into this rhetorics and don’t pay attention to publishing, then you an expect that in your last year of the PhD, the rhetorics will drastically change. And, all of a sudden you will be bombed with questions about your current and future manuscripts.
So, instead of listening to this advice early on, it’s better to assume from the start that you should care about publications. Make sure that your project has a good publishing potential. Assessing the potential of the research projects is highly challenging and requires many years of experience in the field. Many full professors are still poor at spotting good publication opportunities!
Therefore, to approach this issue, it is advisable to come up with at least a few alternatives. Also, check in which types of journals the topics interesting to you tend to appear. Ask at least 3-5 researchers in the field for their opinion, preferably those who have experience (i.e., Postdoctoral and senior researchers).
Will I Make a Successful PhD Candidate?
Lastly, please take into account that it is hard to predict whether you will perform well as a PhD candidate. Some Master’s students who pass all exams with flying colors, fail when it comes to academic research. It is because research requires more independence, creativity, risk management, and endurance than Master’s studies. The opposite scenario is also possible. Many PhD candidates flourish only ofter they start leading their own research projects. Therefore, you need to take into account that you might love or hate this job. You will learn about it in the process.
During the PhD
PhD requires a lot of self-management skills. You will be put in the same pot with plenty of other young and ambitious people. You will have similar career goals, and in that sense, you will compete to some extent. Academia is highly individualistic and puts a lot of pressure on productivity and personal branding. Self-management in academia is a big topic but you can find some tips here.
I’m Not Sure If I Want to Be a Professor but I’d like to Do a PhD
You might still be asking yourself, “Should I get a PhD?” Well, in some areas of industry, it’s good to hold a PhD. For instance, Google is known for its preference to hire PhD holders.
In case you think of a PhD as a way of advancing your position in the job market rather than as a start of your research career, you can think of two PhD tracks beyond the typical graduate school.
1. Industrial PhD. In this case, you conduct your PhD directly in a company. The company proposes a topic and collaborates with some research institutions where you’ll get supervision for your project and eventually defend your thesis.
In this scheme, you will learn much more about industry from behind the curtains. However, you need to accept that the hosting company has a primary interest in their commercial projects and products, and not in your publications. Thus, if you enter a PhD program this way, your publication record will likely be worse than your colleagues’ record at the end. In case you change your mind in the process and wish to develop an academic career, this outcome might effectively block you. If you are interested in hearing more insights from a person who went through this type of a PhD, please take a look at the interview with Dr. Alican Noyan, PhD who conducted his PhD program in Hewlett Packard.
2. Individual PhD. In humanities and some branches of fundamental natural sciences, most of the PhD positions are individual. In this system, you only work with your promotor and, sometimes, with some collaborators of your promotor.
This form of a PhD is such more individualistic and isolated. Yet, on the good side of things, the requirements are also typically lower. Therefore, this option is often chosen also by professionals who already work full-time or part-time in industry, yet they still dream about completing a PhD on a topic personally fascinating for them as a side-kick. In that case, they go through the whole PhD program part-time, usually after working hours and without any remuneration. Their contacts with their promotor usually boil down to reporting and discussing the progress once in a while, until there is a crucial mass of work that can be wrapped up into a dissertation, and defended as a PhD thesis.
Although many people go for unpaid, part-time PhD in their free time, it is not an advisable option. Every PhD projects is a huge intellectual effort. If you decide to do it for free, you will sacrifice all your free time for the next few years only to be constantly overworked, sleep-deprived and deeply frustrated as you do all the job for free—the same job that others, who do full-time PhDs, are paid for. Before taking the final decision, perhaps it is good to take a look at what Google thinks of academia as a system:
How To Apply For PhD Positions?
If despite all the above, you are ready to embark on the academic journey, let’s discuss the following. Here are three main ways of landing a PhD contract. These are the following:
1. Applying to one of the job offers announced online. Academic positions, including PhD candidate contracts, are typically announced at online platforms such as Academic Transfer. I most countries, new positions in public institutions must be announced online, therefore, you can be certain that if working in a specific field and at specific university interests you, you won’t miss the openings.
This path seems the most obvious to take: you see an announcement for a new PhD position on a very interesting topic. So, you wrap up your documents and apply. However, it is not an optimal way to landing a PhD candidate contract. Unfortunately, in practice, many PhD candidate positions are announced in public only because they need to be, while in fact, the preferred candidate is already known to the recruiting team.
Furthermore, even if you are invited to the interview, it is still a gamble as you need to decide to work closely with your future promotor for a few years based on one conversation. You don’t know you will click when it comes to working on the actual project. And in fact, your promotor will influence your well-being and your chances of building a career in academia even more than the project you choose! Therefore, this scenario is a gamble.
2. Applying through personal contacts. In this scenario, you first get in contact with a professor you are willing to work with on a particular PhD subject. If that person notices your potential and receives grant funds necessary to offer you a PhD candidate position, you can have a great start to your PhD. As mentioned above, a good connection with your promotor is the major factor for success when it comes to successfully getting through your PhD and defending the PhD thesis.
In that case, it is still better to make sure that you can be an official member of the graduate school, as it will give you more sense of belonging to the group. Even with the best promotors, opening a few years working in isolation doesn’t work too well for most people’s morale.
3. Writing your own research proposal and taking part in an open grant call. The last option is to write your own research proposal and take part in one of the multiple nations and international grant calls. If your proposal wins with competition, you have the right to pursue the project of your choice. You will also receive a formal grant in a form of a personal fellowship that you can bring with you wherever you go. It is a luxury, a personal achievement, and a great start to an academic career, but it also comes at a cost. Namely, writing viable, publishable research projects is a stunt! Even to established professors with 20-30 years of experience, coming up with new PhD projects is a challenge, as it is very hard to find the right risk-reward trade-off in the project.
Moreover, if you haven’t worked in this academic field before, your technical jargon and your choice of references might be poor and it might not fit the expectations of the experts who will be reading the proposals. It might lead you to a major waste of time—you might spend weeks polishing an application that has no chances of getting through. Not even close.
In that case, it is a better idea to first get in contact with a professor whom you envision as your potential future promotor, and ask them whether they would be willing to help you create your research proposal. If they see potential in you and are willing to work with you, they will likely also support the idea of writing an independent proposal for you to land this project. They have a good incentive to do so because in that case, they don’t need to spend their (usually, tight) budget on your contract, but rather, external money will be pumped to their lab. And, with their endorsement and help, you will have much finer chances of winning the competition.
In summary, it is always better to start your search for a PhD candidate position by searching for a person you are willing to work with. Remember that even the most interesting research project will become hell to you if your promoter turns out to be a bitter, grumpy, micromanaging individual who has ego trips and doesn’t share your outlook at how science should be done.
So, How To Land a PhD Contract?
Whichever PhD track you eventually choose, you will need apply for jobs according to the academic standards and not industry standards.
Namely, you need to remember that in academia, “academic CVs” are used in place of “resumes.” An academic CV is typically much more massive in content than a resume, and contains all your verifiable individual achievements so far: all stages of your education so far, additional certifications, all the positions you occupied, the list of seminal projects your’ve conducted, the list of your previous publications, patents, personal awards and stipends, public appearances, press notes, extracurricular activities that might give a hint that you have leadership skills (all from organizing little events to blogging or podcasting.
In practice, it is often more than 10 pages of text! On the other hand, academic CV typically doesn’t expose your soft skills and core competencies as such—the philosophy is that, your work speaks for itself. You might add a note of your hobbies and private interests though, to give your CV a more personal touch.
The way of writing motivational letters is also different from the way you do it in industry. When applying for positions in private companies, you should underscore why you want to join the particular team and which skills you can bring to that team. When you apply to an academic position, you need to primarily convince the employer that you are passionate about the research topic that the position is about, that this research topic is almost your obsession, and that you will go to any length to make this project work, even if it means working 24/7.
Of course, in the recruitment process, soft skills, the ability to present yourself and communicate, and well as the ability to work in a team also matter. However, the ultimate questions that the employer will ask themselves before signing the contract with you, will be, “Is this person determined enough to go through the whole process, and through the dark times that every PhD candidate goes through?” and “Does this person have the technical aptitude necessary to complete and defend this project?” As you can see, it is a different angle than most recruiters take when employing candidates for industry positions.
What Happens After Your PhD?
And, what happens after your PhD? Well, unfortunately, most PhD graduates these days need to leave academia simply because there is not enough space for them. Many PhD candidates don’t really think about these statistics while starting their projects (and neither did I!). They are in love with science, they plan to do science for a living, and don’t think about the odds.
However, it’s a better option to think about the alternatives from the start. Assume that becoming a full professor is an unlikely scenario, and choose projects that guarantee the maximal number of transferrable skills. Sometimes, two different branches of the same field drastically differ in terms of the career prospects that the graduates get.
For instance, let us assume that you study Optical Physics and build equipment to conduct new experiments. The engineering skills obtained in your studies will only become useful in the branches of industry where you can continue building similar setups. This usually includes no more than a few academic and industrial laboratories in the whole country. On the other hand, if you study Medical Physics, you will write software to perform signal analysis. With this competence, you can work almost anywhere as a Data Scientist, a Machine Learning Engineer, or an Analytic. Therefore, it’s wise to take this factor into account while choosing the scope of your PhD.
The Last Thing…
…worth mentioning is that the job market changes rapidly. The landscape of options will likely be different at the point you will enter graduate school versus at the point you will come to the end of your PhD project. Therefore, rather than planning your career ten years ahead, it’s better to track the job market and be aware of the new trends and opportunities.
Before Starting a PhD: Other Resources to Look Into
I can also recommend watching a 15-minute guidebook to choosing the right PhD project by Vera Chan, PhD (@verabschan), entitled, “PhD Application Advice – How to Choose the Right PhD Supervisor?“ In this movie, Vera explains the weight of this choice and its influence on your future research career. She also introduces major pitfalls that might block your career for good. She also released the episode entitled “Ready for a PhD? Ask Yourself These Questions!” In this episode, she talks about the pros and cons of a PhD from the financial and emotional point of view. Highly recommended watch!
Plus, Prof. James Arvanitakis, the Dean of the Graduate Research School at the Western Sydney University, gave an interesting view from the perspective of grad school management in his movie, “5 Things To Think About Before Starting a PhD“.
Ending: Should I Get a PhD?
Best of with your decision! No matter what happens next, the longest journey of your life is starting now. What an exciting point in your life! If you have any questions, please drop them below.
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Please cite as: Bielczyk, N. (2020). What You Should Know Before Starting a PhD. Retrieved from https://welcome-solutions.com/all-posts/phd-careers/should-i-get-a-phd/