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 that 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 come to the lab and tell you what to do, which experiments to set up, how to use equipment etc.
Succeeding into a PhD programme has nothing to do with your grades!
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 you even consider starting a PhD, let me give a good piece of advice, something which I appreciated I knew before starting. Do a PhD only if it fits your career goals and adds something valuable to your CV in terms of skills or experience. There are tons of jobs that don’t require a PhD and even in research jobs, which tend to require one, some roles and positions just require a master and some previous industrial experience. Do your own diligent research and check whether an industry job can provide you with the same learning experience and skills compared to enrolling on a PhD programme.
Doing a PhD is a career choice and you should consider doing one if it’s important for career progression.
If you are 100% convinced that doing a PhD is something you want then, here my humble pieces of advice!
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!
Doing a PhD is an emotional struggle. Everyone struggles by doing research, even those who fake until they make it, and research studies show that 2/3 of PhD students suffer from poor mental health at some point during their degree. This is a bit because of the nature of the job, it’s likely that you’ll go through extended periods of time when the science in the lab, or the analysis you want to do never works. It’s so easy to blame yourself for all the unsuccessful experiments and feel like you are constantly falling. The other bit is because academia is a toxic and outdated environment, the establishment of misogyny ad white supremacy and unless you fit into the mould of a “traditional scientist” (see paragraph above for clarifications), you struggle just to exist. Make sure you have a strong emotional support system and people who care about you.
Starting a PhD is also a financial commitment. I believe it’s well-known that the is work underpaid, unsocial hours with poor if not right as employees is the norm, no pension scheme, no health benefits, no unions to support your right, no HR to make complaints to. First of all, make sure that you are 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. Outside having a basic salary, there is an important thing to keep in mind. Having a PhD does open the door to well paid jobs, but please bear in mind that you will no have any emergency fund, make no savings for 4 to 7 years because they will only pay a living wage. This is an important factor to consider if killing yourself for the data and sacrifice your life for science isn’t your thing.
I am sure that at some point in the future, you would also like to have a family, start making life plans and get some financial and personal stability. A PhD will delay those projects. It’s totally fine if you don’t mind waiting, but it is something to consider if you don’t have mum and dad who will provide for you or compensate for the financial loss.
Of course, it isn’t all bad, there’s good too!
On the positive side, you will gain a vast amount of knowledge, you’ll have access to all books, top facilities and attend professional meetings and conferences with Nobel laureates. You will gain tools for critical thinking, problem-solving and there’s little you won’t be able to master if you finish and completed all levels of Jumanji. It teaches you the importance of resilience, sacrifice and prioritising long-term success over instant gratification. You will learn a lot about yourself and life in general. And, I was about to forget, at the end of it, they will call you doctor! Good luck!