This is another long overdue blog article inspired by my followers who keep asking if it’s worth or wise to start a PhD programme. First of all, I want to say that I don’t have the answer for everyone. I don’t know your particular circumstances, your financial or personal situations, so don’t take my advice as gold. I can only speak based on my own experience and those of people I know.
A PhD is for everyone, not only rich and smartass folks, you can do it!
I will be repeating this until the day I die, you don’t have to be born with a first-class ticket to become a scientist and start a PhD. Everyone can do it and success in grad school has nothing with your socio-economic background, your grades in high school or how well-known your family is. You can do it. Succeeding in doing a PhD is 99% resilience, hard work, commitment dedication and passion for your subject of research. The rest 1% has something to do with your grades. Why?
During your Bachelor or Master’s degree, everything you have to do is to learn stuff which is already written in a book, memorising notions and do well in exams. If you undertake a mini-research project in the lab, also a very easy task, because your supervisor, a PhD student or postdoc comes to the lab and tells you what to do, which experiments to set up, how to use equipment etc.
A PhD programme is a totally different story. You are in charge of your own project. You are your own supervisor, your own mentor. There is no book to read to find your answers, you will have to find them yourself by turning up to the lab every day and fail 100 experiments before having some kind of positive results. It’s highly likely that you work colleagues don’t know how to solve your problems and even your supervisor doesn’t have an answer for you. You are discovering and inventing the stuff that none has done yet and this takes time, dedication and commitment. If you missed the STEM success summit you can find more info from Dr. Karl Reid here.
With this being said, just a few more tips on how to make the most of this incredible experience.
Before finding the right research project for you, FIND A SUPPORTIVE SUPERVISOR. I just published an article on toxic supervisors where I collected the experience of people who went through horrible experiences that had nothing to do with science and had to either drop their studies or move away. How a supportive supervisor looks like? They are clear about the funding situations, which project you should be taking and how they can use their expertise and knowledge to support your research. Before joining a lab or a research project ask those questions, get in touch with current or former members of the lab and ask them how it’s like to work in that environment. If they are evasive, prefer not to answer or become sarcastic, then, this is a clear sign that the environment isn’t the best!
Ask current or former group member how it’s like to work in that environment!
Starting a PhD is also a financial commitment. I believe it’s well-known that we work underpaid, unsocial hours with poor if not right as employees. Make sure that you are well financially supported by your supervisor or university and can sustain this lifestyle for an extended period of time. For me “I can take you as a PhD student, but I don’t have the money to pay for your research!” is a red flag. I personally discourage everyone to take those opportunities. If you want to do it is okay, but it’s double the struggle if you want to balance a PhD programme and work-life.
Finally, should I do a PhD or start a job after graduation? Honestly, this is entirely up to you. It’s a personal decision and you have to analyse the pros and cons of that decision. I personally decided to step up with my education and don’t focus on the research only. You can do it in industry too, loads of company pay for professional and career training. I know from experience that a PhD is a requirement for certain jobs even at entry-level and you can’t progress professionally if you don’t have a PhD. But, there’s no right time to start a PhD. If you want to start straight away after your Bachelor/Master is okay. It’s also okay if you want to spend a few years outside academia and return later on. Don’t compare your timeline to anyone else, you are the only one who knows what’s best for you!
To know more about how I found my PhD scholarship in the UK, check here.