The author is a PhD student that has chosen to remain anonymous; all opinions within are her/his own.
Doing a PhD has always been my dream, and the initial years of my career path were tailored towards this. After 5 years, I finally got a full scholarship to do a PhD in a prestigious university. To my dismay, doing a PhD isn’t really my cup of tea. I decided to drop it and might need to compensate SGD 40K for my scholarship.
Hence, I think it is vital that those who want to do a PhD are aware of their motivation and capabilities; pursuing one entails a lot of commitment that might lead to undesired outcomes. On top of that, those under scholarships need to compensate the tuition fee and stipend if they do not complete the course, which easily amounts to SGD40K per year. It’s really important for people to go through the list of reasons why should you not do a PhD before taking one up, because there’s little room for trial and error.
Many might not be aware that close to 75% of PhD graduates do not enter an academic career, which they yearn to when starting their course. Besides, the academic positions are dwindling due to the shrinking population—which means that there will be a higher percentage of non-academic graduates in the later years. Therefore, be prepared to not assume professorship after graduating with a PhD.
What happens to that 75%? Some become post-docs for many years without knowing their future career directions. Some re-enter commercial sectors, where 4 to 5 years of working experience would be more worthwhile than a PhD degree.
Due to the competitive career opportunities, PhD graduates need to be internationally mobile in order to get career opportunities, which might not be suitable for people with family commitments.
PhD graduates are often overqualified for many entry-level positions and yet they might not have the basic commercial skills needed. Therefore, a lot of PhD graduates ended in an awkward position when they want to re-enter commercial sectors.
Professors earn a decent, but not great, pay. If you dedicate yourself to the commercial workforce, you can earn up to or more than what they make in addition to better job security. Professors work on a contract basis before being confirmed as a tenured staff, depending on the publications that they can generate within their contractual period. Therefore, professors have a high-stress level regarding their job security even if they successfully secure academic positions. If they do not become tenured staff, their contract might not be renewed—which means that you are fired.
You must be an introvert to do a PhD: it’s highly likely that you will dislike the work environment otherwise. This is because the PhD work environment is isolated from people most of the time. Most days, you will spend time reading articles, writing, thinking and doing data analysis. For various reasons, PhD students don’t hang out often. Your colleagues will be your supervisors and research assistants whom you meet once to twice a month.
You must be a workaholic. I thought that I could have more time for my personal life by doing a PhD. It turns out that the working hours are much longer than the usual working hours. On average, the PhD students I knew worked 7 days, 10 to 12 hours each day. Therefore, don’t do a PhD because you don’t want to work (something I hear from the fresh graduates)!
You must be able to acquiesce. Academia is a hierarchical workplace with sheer authority. Your supervisor is both your teacher who determines whether you will get your PhD degree and also your boss whom you need to run his projects for. You can quit a job when you dislike a boss, but you cannot stop a PhD because you dislike your supervisor. Changing supervisors can be distressful and troublesome.
Creativity is crucial. One needs to be able to identify the research gap and come out with ways to address it. I’ve met PhD students who struggle a lot in coming out with proper research ideas, which impedes their progress. If you are not curious and don’t enjoy thinking, you will not enjoy the essence of PhD.
Meticulosity is essential. For every research topic, researchers need to read hundreds of articles to ensure that the research area is being thoroughly examined before asking a sound research question and proposing a reasonable theory. This is called the literature review process, and it can be tedious for people who do not value details. In addition to that, data collection and analysis require a highly organized character as well.
Writing is a must. Even if you fulfil the above criteria, a good social science researcher needs to be a good writer. Don’t underestimate the importance of writing in research as no articles can be published without bulletproof writing, which requires thousands of hours of dedication in a single journal article. Therefore, if you want to enjoy doing research, you need to enjoy writing as well as that is the main bulk of your work.
If you go through the list above and still find yourself burning with passion, then a PhD might be the right path for you. A PhD is really a fulfilling journey if you are curious about your research area, having a great passion for solving the problem—not only for your thesis but as your lifelong career. I cannot imagine a philosopher being more satisfied in any other professions than getting a PhD and imparting his/her knowledge to other seekers of truth.
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