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Thinking of Doing a PhD? Read This First.

Thinking of Doing a PhD? Read This First.

  • Student Tips
Joanna HughesAug 29, 2016

“To PhD or not to PhD -- that is the question.” While whether or not to go for your doctorate may not actually be one of life’s most baffling contemplations, neither is it a slam dunk. After all, a PhD is incredibly rigorous -- both regarding the time it takes and the effort involved in its pursuit. On the fence about whether a PhD is right for you? We’ve rounded up four points to help guide your decision-making process.

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1. Know your motivations.
In everyday life, people don’t always share the same motivations. The same holds true when it comes to the PhD. Whatever your individual motivations, the better you know and understand them, the more likely you are to make an informed and fulfilling decision.

Did you know that the PhD failure rate hovers around 40 percent at some UK institutions? Understanding your motivations won’t just come in handy when it comes to deciding on whether or not to do a PhD, this knowledge will also help you stay on track if and when you do decide to go for it.

One last thing to keep in mind? If making lots of money is at the top of your motivations list, you may want to reconsider as PhDs aren’t worth that much more than master’s degrees. Luckily, there are plenty of good reasons beyond money for getting a PhD.

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2. Assess Your Work Process.
While PhD students do get some support from their universities, advisors and peers, much of their work is done in isolation. Can you work independently, and do you enjoy doing it? If so, you may find the largely solitary work of the PhD student to be appealing. However, if the thought of the solitary academic life -- at least for the next five years or so -- sends chills down your spine, PhD work may not be for you.

Of course, it’s not just about whether or not you can spend time on your own. It’s also about whether or not you’re ready to work in an environment in which you’re your own boss. Your advisor will “advise” you, but don’t expect to be told what to do. PhD students must be ready, willing and able to take responsibility for their work, work process and work product -- almost entirely on their own.

The bright news? For students who stick it out and get PhDs despite the solitude often found in graduate school, university jobs are often in dynamic, bustling communities so you’ll have plenty of time for a social life in the future.

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3. Take a Break.
While some students have always had PhD studies in their sights, others end up there by default when senior year rolls around and they’re still not sure of their future plans. Entering into a PhD with ambivalence or just because you can’t think of anything else to do is a recipe for failure. PhD work requires true passion and commitment. Anything less will result in five years of misery.

This is why many experts recommend taking a year or two break before entering a PhD program. A year off from academic life can help you understand better everything from your career outlook to your motivations. Whether you travel to a new country and work on your language skills or take a research job in your prospective field, these pursuits can yield valuable insights into whether continuing in academic is right for you. Even better? You’ll be a better PhD student if/when you do decide to go.


4. Consider Your Career.
Unlike some course of study, a PhD isn’t a means to an end. For example, students go to medical school to become doctors and law school to become lawyers. But there’s no equivalent corollary when it comes to PhD studies. The training learned during PhD studies does lay the foundation for becoming a researcher or academic, but it’s not a foregone conclusion as with some other graduate degrees. Sure, you’ll learn plenty while working on your PhD, and much of it is transferrable to the job market. But ultimately this degree is more about the learning process than about the end result.

One last thing to keep in mind? Just as there are good reasons to pursue a PhD, there are also bad reasons. Thinking of doing a PhD because all of your friends are doing it, because your parents want you to, or because you want to get out of a dead-end job? A PhD may offer a temporary solution, but is unlikely to be sustainable in the long run without something more. On the other hand, if you're incentivized by the thought of potentially world-changing discovery, achieving something significant, and a natural thirst for knowledge, a PhD may well be the perfect fit.

Joanna Hughes

Joanna worked in higher education administration for many years at a leading research institution before becoming a full-time freelance writer. She lives in the beautiful White Mountains region of New Hampshire with her family.