Should YOU Pursue PhD? by Aaretti Kaleva
In your Master’s you may have at least once thought of the daring idea of pursuing a PhD. This idea is quickly forgotten when the thought of more pursuing enters your mind and people tend to talk negatively about it.
There are many misconceptions about making a PhD and it is painted in a very discouraging way. Even by PhD students themselves! This was the case for myself when I was thinking of taking up the PhD journey.
Now that I have been doing this for two years, my experiences so far have been failure, depression, late nights writing, anxiety, and then a little bit of that sweet sweet success which has made it all worth it!
Now, before I go into details I should point out that everyone’s PhD experiences will vary depending on your discipline, country, university, faculty, professor and of course yourself.
I am doing a PhD in Materials Science and engineering in Finland which is going to be the basis of the experience I am going to talk about in this blog post.
When I was considering PhD, I had five problematic impressions of what it would be:
1. Commitment for four years project
2. Narrow field of knowledge and skillset
3. Extra work
4. I don’t like writing
Commitment for a multiple year project is always a tricky thing. The person hiring you is going to want to hear that you will be committed until the end of the project. This makes a lot of sense of course, especially if you are being paid for it.
When I was in doubt about the commitment to the project was when a fellow PhD student said to me: if it isn’t something you like, you can just quit, can’t you?
It does not benefit anyone if you will not enjoy your work, not your professor, university or your research partners. Of course, starting a PhD needs an attitude from yourself that you will finish the whole thing, but in essence, it is still just a job.
Next thing to consider is that, what you will learn if you do decide to commit. During your PhD your main focus is going to be on a very specific research topic that you will eventually compile into a thesis. However, along the road you will probably do and learn much more than that.
Too often I hear the statement that graduated PhD’s have narrow knowledge pool and cannot do anything other than one thing, and of course that they have no practical experience what so ever. This idea still persists strongly and is probably why there is reluctance in the industrial companies for hiring PhD’s after graduation (at least in Finland).
The truth is, during your PhD you will gather information and knowledge from wide range of sources. You will have to learn everything from you research topic and how your equipment works, how to run it and how to fix it. You will discuss with your colleagues and learn their research topics and you will go to conferences and discuss with more and more people.
Additionally, you have to learn how to do a presentation, public speaking, project management, negotiating and so on…
Whether or not you will learn all of those things depends on YOU of course! You can decide not to learn all of this stuff and focus only on your topic. However, if you take the opportunity to learn everything possible you will most likely learn more than in any other job. The beauty of making a PhD lies in the freedom that you have. You are going to be the person who decide what you need to do and learn during your studies.
The same aforementioned principles apply to the extra work that you are given alongside of your research. One day you might need to help someone on a project and on another day you might give lectures to Master’s students. All of this might prolong your thesis. Still, you learn a lot from these activities if you have the right attitude. Teaching is the best way of learning!
Learning depends on the individual but how about things every PhD student needs to do? Writing is one of those things and I have never liked it. It is of course one of the key requirements for PhD. However, what I have noticed is that when you push yourself to continue doing something you often end up liking it. Repetition, repetition and repetition, that is how you get better and when you get better, you start to enjoy it.
Well how about funding? Looking for funding might be painful as the only thing you get from it is the ability to continue your work instead of actually doing the work. I have been lucky not having to worry too much about it being part of Doctoral School of Innovations (DSII) but this might not be the case for everyone.
In essence, there are three main ways to get funding: doctoral schools, grants and project funding. All of them have their pros and cons and you have to find out what are your possibilities.
Now that I have tackled all my own previous misconceptions, I am moving on to the actual benefits and problems I have faced. Here is my summary of the GOOD and the BAD of the PhD life so far:
· Freedom of working
· Learning about many things
· Becoming the best at something
· Multiple career opportunities
· PhD degree
· Too much freedom
· For every success you experience many failures
· Fear of no purpose of the topic
· Looking for funding
The freedom you get to advance in your PhD can be either a blessing or a curse. You are solely responsible for the things you do and how you advance in the studies. You can work the standard eight to four workday or you can work all night and sleep during day. Hell, you could in theory work for only 2 hours a day as long as you get the results you need. At the end of the day that is the only thing that matters. Of course, do not count on this because you will probably work more than what you think.
On the other hand, when you are presented with such freedom, you might be lost and stuck by questions like: What should I do next? I don’t know how to do this, who can help me?! Now, even though you will have supervisors and possibly other people helping you but, in the end, everything is up to you and how you solve these problems.
The best things about PhD for me is learning a lot and becoming an expert in something. You do not have to win the Nobel Prize for your thesis but you are still creating something that nobody else has.
Of course, coming up with new things tends to create problems as well. You will probably experience much more failures than successes within the journey and you need to have the right attitude about it.
When many of the failures keep coming without successes, you might fall in to the fear of no purpose on your research topic and you might even want to quit. I believe that almost every PhD student has experienced this at least once in his or her journey.
However, once you finally experience small taste of success, you feel like on your own top of the world again! Making a PhD is kind of like being bipolar. I guess both are some sort of mental insanity. Just keep in mind, the successes always make it worth it!
Some of the more tangible benefits of PhD are gaining multiple career opportunities and getting a PhD degree. You can choose whether you go for the academic path, for the industry or even start your own company. I have seen all of that happen for people and there are no limits of what you can do with your newly acquired skillset.
Some people tend to believe that the academic path is the only choice. I am still not planning on going through the steps of academia towards professorship but it is weirdly comforting to have that possibility.
Now about the PhD degree, I am not a person who really cares of titles but it does open up some good opportunities and possibly a slight boost for the paycheck. In many parts of the world, a PhD degree is highly respected and will give you better starting point than others. This might not totally apply to Finland but it has its effects also here.
My perception of PhD has changed a lot during this journey. I have enjoyed this much more than I thought. I believe that how your PhD struggle will be depends mostly on you and your attitude when trying to overcome failures.
Now for the readers that are still asking themselves: to PhD or not to PhD?, I will just mention the words of Mr. Shia LaBeouf and Nike:
Just Do It.