Undergraduates Ask: Should I Do a PhD?

Deciding whether to do a Ph.D. is tough: It’s a huge investment of time and effort. If you are considering a Ph.D., ask yourself if it’s primarily because:

a. You can’t think of anything else to do.

b. You feel it’s too early to go into the job market.

c. You have a research question that keeps you up at night.

d. Your lecturer offered you the opportunity to join his or her lab.

Whichever answer you chose, doing a Ph.D. may still be the right decision for you. However, if you chose a, b, or d, your answer betrays a lack of insight that may make graduate training a real struggle. If you answered c, you are more likely to enjoy your Ph.D., but enthusiasm alone won’t guarantee your success.

Of course, the decision to get a Ph.D. is far more complicated than choosing the right answer from a multiple-choice question. Before taking any decision, “the student really needs to learn a lot about what to expect in graduate school to see if it will be a good fit for them,” says Laura Malisheski, a careers counsellor at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts. “We encourage [students] to think more deeply about their own motivations, to explore a lot of other opportunities, to do research in a lab, and to talk with potential faculty advisers and current graduate students at the institutions to which they are applying.”

A Ph.D.–What’s that?

Doctoral programs vary greatly across countries. In the United States, doctoral education usually takes at least 5 years and may include a year or more of coursework and lab rotations. In Europe, the Ph.D. commonly lasts at least 3 years and, depending on the country and institution, it may be part of a structured doctoral program or consist mostly of informal individual training. Wherever you are, the goal of a Ph.D. is research training, so it requires you to conduct a research project of your own. Much of it is learning techniques, doing experiments, and interpreting data. But you will also have to plan out your project, figure out how to execute it, and, more generally, develop an approach fit to tackle any new techniques or research questions.

Researchers in training also have to keep abreast of what’s going on in their field by reading the scientific literature and going to meetings. They have to present their work to their research groups to start with, and, if successful, to the broader scientific community through meetings and publications. “For their Ph.D. and their future research career to be successful, [young scientists] should engage as much with the intellectual and interactive aspects as the experimental ones,” says Kathy Barrett, a career adviser at University College London.

Barrett estimates that a good proportion of all life sciences research students in the U.K. do a Ph.D. just because the opportunity is there. “Occasionally, a prospective supervisor will say, ‘You are very good, you can do a Ph.D. with me,’ and the students will be flattered enough to dive in without exploring other career options,” she says. Often this goes hand-in-hand with not knowing what else to do and seeing a Ph.D. as the next logical qualification to get. However, there are several points to consider before embarking on a postgraduate adventure.

To Ph.D. or not to Ph.D.?

Experiencing research is the surest way to find out whether academia is for you. Although nowadays many undergraduates get a taste of the research life, Susan Gerbi, former chair of the Department of Molecular Biology, Cell Biology, and Biochemistry at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, recommends working as a research assistant after graduation to see what “doing research 100% of the time” is like. Whether you’re in the lab as an undergraduate or as an employee, observe what Ph.D. students do and what different roles senior people hold all the way up the career ladder. That way you will see if an academic career is what you really want, Barrett says.

A Ph.D. involves devoting several years to intense research on a single research area, so you want to pick a topic you have a burning desire to investigate. “One thing that undergraduates don’t often realize is that one of the major differences between undergraduate studies and graduate studies is that they are going to move from a broad-based education to one that is extremely focused,” says careers counsellor Malisheski.

One way to discover such specific interest is to read the scientific literature in a field you enjoyed during your undergrad studies. Even better is to talk to different lab heads about their research. Andr√© Levy, now a postdoctoral biologist at the Higher Institute for Applied Psychology in Lisbon, Portugal, says that when he started his Ph.D. at the Stony Brook University with a Fulbright fellowship, “I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do my research in.” He chose a program that gave him the flexibility to talk with different lab heads and later form his research project.

Not all doctoral positions offer that luxury, however, and spending some time investigating your interests before starting a Ph.D. will improve the likelihood that you pick a project that keeps your interest over several years. It can also allow you to test your chances of success in a particular area. Now a final-year genetics Ph.D. student at the Medicine Faculty of Porto University in Portugal, Joana Marques effectively started working on her Ph.D. project during her biology degree. Before deciding to pursue the Ph.D., she says, “I did some research to see if [the project] was going to work or not because I needed to establish techniques that were not being used in the lab.” Reassured that she would get some good results out of her project, Marques continued on.

Choosing a supervisor and research environment

A good supervisor is a key ingredient in an enjoyable and successful Ph.D. Before committing to a Ph.D. project, get a feel for what your relationship will be like by meeting with your prospective supervisor and, if possible, talking to other group members in private. “You shouldn’t be so blunt of course, but ‘Will the supervisor pay me attention or ignore me, treat [me] as [an] unpaid slave, or allow me to grow and train me properly?’ are all questions you want answers for,” Barrett says.

The wider context in which you do your Ph.D. also counts for a lot. When looking at a prospective graduate school, “it’s useful to ask … what the track record is for Ph.D. training,” Gerbi says: how many students completed their Ph.D.s and what sectors are they working in. “That way the students can match their own career goals with the training environment of the school.”

In Europe, ask yourself whether you prefer to be part of a formal doctoral program or to be trained individually. No matter where you are, make sure you will be in a supportive scientific environment. While doing his Ph.D. at Stony Brook University, Levy found that “there was very much a scientific community composed of faculty and graduate students and an open-doors policy not only with my advisers but also with the faculty in the programme. … It was a big support.”

The challenges to expect

Very rare is the Ph.D. in which all goes as planned. When the going gets tough–and it usually will–what will see you through is enthusiasm for your project, your commitment to get it done, and your resilience, Barrett says. “The ability to communicate with their peers and advisers, not only when things are going well but also when they are not working,” is important too, says careers counsellor Malisheski.

Above all, “you have to … not get upset because things are not working,” says Ph.D. student Marques. Still, setbacks may create a lot of anxiety and test self-confidence, postdoctoral researcher Levy says. Doctoral candidates commonly question their abilities as scientists, wonder whether their efforts will pay off, and worry about what else they can do if research doesn’t work out, he says. It’s important that Ph.D. students have a supportive social network and out-of-the-lab activities to help deal with stress–because stress is guaranteed.

“A Ph.D. is 4 years of intensive work and intense determination to work, but … it is very rewarding if you like research and if you like what you are doing,” says Marques. In addition to a great deal of scientific knowledge, you learn how to overcome problems both in the lab and in your personal life, she adds. Ph.D. students usually get a great sense of achievement, a can-do attitude, and an awful lot of skills out of their Ph.D., Barrett says.

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