Is a PhD For You?

This is a blog entry I actually wrote the majority of about a month ago, but then other things came along and bothered me, like work, and I never got round to posting it. I’m sure there’s some ironic witticism in the fact my PhD stopped me from writing about the experience of a PhD, but I’m sleep deprived and brain not work good.

Several weeks ago, I was speaking with someone who was approaching that odd limbo you find yourself in when you come to the end of a degree and have no idea what you’re going to do afterwards. She asked me what seemed like a fairly simple question: “Would you recommend doing a PhD?” I found myself at a loss for words, which rather surprised me. I felt as though I was somehow unqualified to answer that, despite being well into my second year. “Laura,” you might think, “that’s ridiculous. Who better to recommend a PhD than someone actually doing one?”

Well, the fact is a PhD is a very personal and individual journey, and I felt that recommending one solely off the experience of mine would be like recommending a band after only hearing one of their songs. I just don’t know how typical my experience is, and if any of the things I’ve felt or endured are particularly ubiquitous or unique. With that in mind, I decided in the end to ask people who are also battling their PhD (or have managed to conquer it, in one way or another) to find out what their experience has been like so I could compile them into one hopefully helpful place.

Without a doubt, the most overwhelming response was stressful. Not necessarily all the time, but everyone was willing to admit that stress is a big part of a PhD. I wrote a blog entry before about a PhD being like a parasite, that leaches away at your free time and is constantly making you feel guilty for not working on it. Indeed, the reason I’ve had to put off writing this blog is because I’ve been snowed under with work. One of my friends told me that the pressure from the PhD (but also pressure she puts on herself) makes some kind of “guilt-trip loop”, which drives her to work very long hours. Another friend told me that she’s found her PhD to challenge her not just academically, but personally as well. You will find out a lot about your stress limits on a PhD (good or bad…). As I’ve mentioned before, stress is most easily overcome by making sure you have a good bunch of PhD buddies who understand your very unique and somewhat self-inflicted pain.

Of course, stress is not just the realm of PhD students, so don’t let it be a defining factor in what you choose to do after your degree.

Another common answer was that a PhD makes you feel like an idiot. I have a lot of experience with that. I spent the whole of my first year convinced that I’d somehow tricked the panel in my interview into giving me a PhD, that I’d slipped through, and nervously awaited the moment they would suddenly turn on me and say, “Wait a minute… what are you doing here?” I very easily second guess myself, and end up convincing myself that I don’t know the answer to a very simple question. In most normal circumstances, if someone were to ask me something about my project, I would be able to give a confident, clear explanation. When I’m in a board meeting, or being quizzed by a supervisor or something, I suddenly doubt all that I know. Instead of a nice coherent string of sentences, I make odd, sometimes disturbing, noises. One of my friends told me that he had to give a presentation to one of their outside funders recently, and the things he talks about on a daily basis were suddenly just out of reach in his brain.

Someone on Twitter sent me a link to a very funny and very comforting article called The Importance of Stupidity in Scientific Research. It makes the very good point that in research, you will of course feel stupid because you are trying to answer questions that no one really knows the answers to yet. That’s why you’re there. In the face of the infinite number of things we do not know as a species, your imagined stupidity seems to fade into nothingness. And, as one of my friends remarked the other week, “at least I’m getting better at sounding like I know what I’m doing.”

Many people also commented on how lonely a PhD can be. In a science PhD, it’s hard to physically be alone as you are constantly working in a lab surrounded by people. It’s the isolation of not knowing anyone else that can really help explain what you’re doing that can be scary. “You are ultimately the only one responsible for the success or failure of your project” is one of the replies I got on Twitter. That can seem incredibly daunting when you first come to realise that. However, I’ve learned how to turn that fear into motivation to drive myself towards success. Nothing will drive you more than the feeling of impending doom! Sometimes it’s the social isolation, whether that’s having to work late nights to finish the sampling from your experiment, or needing to hunker down in a small dark room to write a report. I have groups of friends I haven’t seen on a regular basis for years. Actually, you can sometimes feel isolated from other friends even when you’re around them, usually when you talk about work. Sometimes people ask me what I’m doing, and I’ll start brief but once I get on a roll, I tend to get more and more enthusiastic and keep talking. Eventually I can see their eyes have glazed over and they just periodically nod while fantasising about punching me in the face.

Okay, I’ve focused on a lot of negatives… what about the good parts? Well, a fair few people mentioned fieldwork, which is something I get to enjoy on my PhD. Not everyone will work in the field (and not everyone will want to), but it’s certainly been a fascinating experience for me. Fieldwork is one of those things that’s hard to explain to people who have never done it, because (in my experience) a lot of people assume you go off on holiday for a month or two. In actuality, field work involves long hours working under pressure (you are very aware that you only have a finite amount of time to collect everything you want) with very few days off. Don’t think I’m complaining, because I’m not, I’m extremely lucky to have been able to work where I have and where I’m going to, and thoroughly enjoy myself (though, perhaps not 100% of the time…!). Travel in general is one of the perks of a PhD, whether through fieldwork, conferences, meetings, training exercises. You also get to meet people from many different places, which is a fascinating experience in itself.

The most positive things people said for their PhD was that despite all the negative bits, they still genuinely loved what they do. Most important was the subject, which I can vouch for. You need to really find your topic interesting, because that’s the only way you can keep yourself motivated to carry on when you feel like you just want to quit (and trust me, you will feel like that at some point, even if it’s just for half an hour). Honestly, it’s one of the things that excites me the most about my PhD. My job is to find out about stuff I genuinely love and find super interesting. That’s awesome! When I look through the comments I got about PhD experiences, people said things like “love my research topic”, “best job I’ve ever had” and ” can’t imagine a cooler more interesting project than what I’m doing”.

In summary, I have loved my PhD. I have also hated it at times, but my love of the topic makes sure the two of us kiss and make up. With than analogy in mind, I’ll leave you one of the most all-encompassing comments I received from my friend Julius.

Solitary, social, exciting, boring, stressful, relaxing, gives you highs, gives you lows, makes you feel smart and the next moment stupid, makes you feel you are going far and nowhere… whatever it gives you, I’ve never regretted and would choose it again and again (sounds like marriage…maybe it is a bit).

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10 thoughts on “Is a PhD For You?

  1. Hey, I am in your blog. If only in the background of the Hoga pic but YAY!

    Thanks for the little research on the side into the world of PhDs. I admire anyone who successfully juggles all the challenges of independent research. I mean, I can take a bit but my Masters thesis was well enough for me already, the thought of doing a PhD simply scares the crap out of me.

    I wish you all the best for your PhD, strength for your talks and board meetings and of course all the fun you can get. Hang in there, you are halfway through already!

    • Thanks so much, Sandra! I think our MSc course was pretty gruelling, in some ways more difficult than a PhD because of how intense everything was. And yay for the Hoga pic, would be nice to get a little reunion going on some time soon!

    • Hi Gabriel, sorry it’s taken so long to reply, I have been away on field work and only got back a week or two ago! Had a browse of The Human Side, some great reads, I’d love to put something together to submit!

  2. I loved the positive note your ended this post with! I’ve read quite a few blogs that only seem to focus on the negative, which makes me doubt whether I should continue with my doctorate. I’m 1.5 years into my PhD and I can relate to everything you said in this post; very well written 🙂

    • I’m glad you liked it, thanks for reading! Yes, I think we can sometimes only focus on the bad things, especially when we’re getting stressed and frustrated with the project. But ultimately, it pays to remember why you chose to do your PhD in the first place. Good luck with your research!

  3. Ahhh “Eventually I can see their eyes have glazed over and they just periodically nod while fantasising about punching me in the face.” yessss… exactly

    As you may or may not remember me from twitter (@stephchristine0), the other phytoplankton girl, I have been finding your blog very useful.
    I just graduated with my BS in Biology last May. My degree was really in phytoplankton rather than Biology. I did an undergraduate thesis, two internships (one required an equivalent of a graduate research project), and I may or may not continue to do another internship (Mote Marine) on red tide blooms this summer.
    My question to you is, as all of this experience accumulates, when did you say do yourself, I am not ready for a PhD yet, I should do a masters first, or I am ready to go straight into a PhD program? (I don’t know your academic history if you don’t have a MS or do.)

    The reason why I ask this is, I have been told by tons of my mentors, professors that I am not ready for a PhD program. Somehow, with all of this experience, I find myself asking, why not? Why should I be afraid to try and find that I am capable of doing it?
    I interviewed recently with a professor who seems very interested in me and their special graduate program has students enter into a PhD track program and are able to (freak out mid way and) decide they are not ready to start writing a dissertation and decide they’d rather get their MS first and then continue to do their PhD there or elsewhere.
    I would like to ask you, of your experience, if you have had these moments in time where everyone is telling you “no, no you’re not ready”, even as they should know best as they have accomplished their degrees and written their dissertations; however, inside you are questioning believing them over believing in yourself and failing exponentially (???).

    • Hey there! Thanks for stopping by, and I’m glad you’ve found my blog helpful 🙂

      I know how confusing it is when you’re trying to figure out what to do next. For me, one of the biggest issues about applying for a PhD was confidence. Straight out of my undergraduate degree, I don’t think I would have had the confidence to interview well for a PhD. This isn’t the case for everyone, as some of my friends came into a doctorate after their Bachelor’s degree, but I really don’t think I could have. My advisor encouraged me to apply for a one year MSc instead, which not only gave me some postgraduate experience to boost my CV, but psychologically removed a barrier I had about applying for a doctorate. It sounds like you have quite a lot of outside experience, which to my mind would definitely give you a strong application. If your mentors and professors are telling you that you’re not ready for a PhD, I’d ask them why they think that. It could just be that they still feel that it’s difficult to get a PhD with only a BSc under your belt, or maybe they feel there is some skill you need to improve first (which hopefully they’d help you out with). I honestly think I benefited from doing my MSc first, it really focussed on developing your skills as a researcher, how to critically analyse your own work and that of others, and ultimately taught me how to think like a scientist. The graduate scheme you mentioned sounds interesting, and if the professor is enthusiastic about you joining, then that’s always a good sign! My advice would be to find out from your professors why they think you’re not ready, and if there’s any way you can address those concerns. And remember, it never hurts to send out applications anyway, and see what you get back!

      I hope this helps and isn’t just convoluted and confusing! Do let me know if you have more questions.

      • Thank you so so so much. I am glad I decided to leave a comment and ask you questions. I do not know why they told me I am not ready. I just felt they were right and agreed with them on everything. For the first time, I have interviewed for an offer that involves PhD work that I wouldn’t be totally psychologically terrified of doing because I have confidence I’m capable of doing it.
        I definitely also feel I am capable of doing research on my own due to my experiences. I cannot thank you enough for your feedback and help to move forward with the interview process. I take your point and ask my mentors this week why I wouldn’t or why I would feel ready for PhD work.
        I hope your writing goes really well and I always look forward to hearing about phytoplankton research from others since I am well versed in the field. Cheers-Stephanie

  4. Thank you for this post. I am currently at that ethereal point of academic existence in which I am about to complete a MSc and do not know what is to come. I had always fantasized about doing a PhD, with only the semi-conscious notion of why I would want to do so. Anyway, I am finding it very hard to pick a topic of interest. It seems like, depending on the day, every single proposal I read (and re-read) is either the most wonderful project that ever existed or just plain uninteresting. It is a very confusing moment in life, particularly given the fact that my MSc internship did not exactly go according to plan and I have come to realize just how I much I do not know, and that I may not have the strength and organizational skills to deal with all the pressure and sheer amount of work of a PhD. This post help me calm down a bit, if only for a moment. I was reminded that every person has to juggle with a certain amount of stress, frustration and insecurities at different times of life. Thank you, and the very best of luck in all your projects, present and future!

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