Readers of the blog will know that I successfully defended my PhD in March. Today, I want to share some thoughts I have on the process for those considering a PhD and for those in the PhD.
Deciding if you want to do PhD is an important decision, and not one that should be taken lightly. I get a lot of people asking me whether they should do a PhD, and whether my thoughts have changed since I started. After four and a bit years, I have lots of thoughts. However, if I was to group them, they’d fall into two major categories: those considering a PhD, and those in the PhD.
For those considering a PhD
DON’T DO IT.
Good, I have your attention.
Here’s the thing – almost always when someone asks me for advice, they already know they want to go to grad school and want me to validate their decision. They’re not looking for information, they’re looking for confirmation. This is a terrible state of mind to start from and doesn’t serve you well.
What I advise people to do is to start from the point of you don’t want to do it, and convince yourself why you should, even if that’s not where you are in your decision making process. There are two reasons for this. First, knowing why you want to do a PhD will help you tailor your thesis to your career goals. Your project, your extra curricular activities, your training, will all be impacted by where you see yourself going and why. Second, this will help you when you inevitably get stuck in “the valley” and need motivation. If you know this is what you want, and this is why you are here, motivation will be in abundant supply.
Talk to lots of people
Talking to lots of people will give you a good idea of what works for you and what resonates with your own situation, and may help you realize things that are important to you that you never really considered. Ultimately, people prioritize things differently. I’m going to provide my own perspective, fuelled by my experiences, values and beliefs. However, yours may differ. For example, I put a premium on working with specific people, and that weighs heavily on my decision making process. Talk to lots of PhD students, both inside and outside of your target school, and get a feel for what resonates with you and what doesn’t. There are definitely situations where talking to those living those examples would be beneficial and useful, such as if you have kids, are returning to school, or have significant others with their own career. People in the program living those examples can speak candidly about how it impacts their life and any advice they might have. Do not underestimate how effectively the minutiae of daily life will wear you down over time.
For those in a PhD
Death by a thousand paper cuts
One thing about the PhD you’ll hear a lot is that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. This has several important consequences. Working consistently means you’ll never be in a situation where you have to do a bunch of work under pressure. Now, granted, there are still situations where you’ll need to be putting in long hours (running samples, field season etc), but make these the exception, not the rule. You have to keep at it, and keep chipping away.
But this cuts both ways. You have to prepare yourself for 4+ years of study at the start, which means developing good habits in terms of health, sleep, and coping. The same way you can chip away at the PhD in small doses, the PhD will grind you down if you let it. And speaking of that, if you need to seek out help, do it. The PhD is a gruelling process, and taking time to seek out help from counsellors, psychologists, and others can have important consequences for your mental health.
Will it help me finish or will it add time?
This question should be your mantra through grad school. One of the best things about the PhD is the freedom you get. You can come in and leave whenever you want, and there’s lots of freedom to pursue side projects. I’ve seen friends go on and do fascinating and powerful work outside of their PhD because they had the freedom to. However, you have to ask yourself every time you take on new things: will this help me finish or will this add time. Depending on the institution, you may only have funding for a finite period of time, and after that you are on your own, but you’re still paying tuition. If something isn’t going to help you finish, think very carefully about whether or not you want to do it. Be objective and cutthroat. The most precious resource you have is time – make sure you’re investing it wisely.
Know when to fold
One important and not often discussed issue in graduate school is leaving. Sometimes people start a PhD thinking it will go a certain way, and sometimes they realize halfway through this isn’t what they want. If this resonates with you, then consider whether finishing is worth the time investment. This is all highlighted by the sunken cost theory. Once you’ve invested all this time, you don’t want to leave. However, rationally, this might be the right decision for you. Above all, remember that this is an option, and it might be the right one for you. Obviously this isn’t a decision to be made lightly, but remember that this is an option.
That all being said, I enjoyed my PhD experience. I was fortunate to have supervisors and friends who supported me throughout, and I don’t think I would have had the time to pursue my passions and side projects if I wasn’t given the latitude a PhD provides. A PhD can be a great experience, but just be careful and ensure that it is what you want for your career.
- Why did you go to graduate school?
- What are the things that are important when picking your adviser/PI?
- What about your committee?
- How have you/do you deal with criticism and rejection; be it from advisers, professors, peers or funding committees?
- How did you deal with rejection when you were applying to schools?
- Are there tips for fighting impostor syndrome?
- What if things aren’t going so well? What advice do you have for those who might having a tough time – either juggling multiple commitments, losing interest or falling behind?
- Is doing a Masters and PhD at the same school frowned upon? What about undergrad/Masters/PhD?
- What has surprised you so far about the grad school experience? In which cases did it meet your expectations and when did it fail to do so? (i.e. How is graduate school life different to undergraduate life?)
- What does it take to be a successful graduate student? Are there any last minute tips/advice/inspirational words you have for budding graduate students?