Occasionally I get students who ask me for advice on doing a Ph. D. It usually starts with a, ‘should I do it?’ type of question, and… generally speaking… I tell them ‘no’.
Now, some of you may be going,
🤭 (<- that should be a gasp)
Others may have already known that this is my default stance. I’m not joking, either. It’s not ‘nah, don’t do it, haha’. It’s ‘no, seriously, don’t do it’.
It’s not that controversial. Personally, if I got asked whether I’d reconsider doing a Ph. D (if I could turn back time)- I would do my Ph. D all over again in a heartbeat. I’ve said so many times before.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t understand the reality of it.
I’ll get to the finer details later.
To save you from reading the entire post, the short of it is this:
The reason why I’m generally against it is because when you’re the student weighing up the options, there’s an overwhelming amount of pressure towards doing a Ph. D.
Generally you’re already in the research environment (maybe you’re working, maybe you’ve just done Honours/Masters), so everyone around you is either a Ph. D student or Post-Doc and above who have done their Ph. Ds. Your supervisor obviously wants you to do a Ph. D because you’re free labour (generally), and let’s face it… you kinda want that title. It sounds cool. Doctor (insert name here). And honestly- it kind of is.
So I like being the person who, in amongst all of that, turns around and says, ‘nah- don’t do it’.
Because then you might look at it more objectively, and take a moment to really consider it. Because you should. It’s a big decision. You don’t want to get pushed into it, or just ‘go with the flow’.
And these are some of the reasons why I discourage it, broadly speaking.
(don’t forget I’m a wet lab, research project-based background- don’t ask me about coursework)
1. It’s a decent amount of time
Crushed your Honours year? Thought your Masters was a breeze (which I doubt)?
Think a Ph. D is going to be similar?? THINK AGAIN! 😂😅
Honours is essentially a nine month degree. It’s six months of work coupled with three months of writing, defence, and coursework. Projects are tailored to be completed within that given time frame- so of course things will seem like it whizzed by and you’re more likely to have tangible results. Not to say that everyone always does, but a lot will have data that they can be reasonably happy with.
Masters is probably closer to what life as a Ph. D student might be like- except Ph. D students don’t have mandatory coursework. I like to think those that do their Masters and THEN a Ph. D on top are true masochists. 🤣 That is some next level dedication right there. That’s two solid years.
Plus four years for the Ph. D.
That’s the thing- it’s four years. Not nine months. Not two years.
Even if you submit at three years (which… how?!), you still have a few months of waiting around while your thesis gets examined. You still need to fix any amendments that might be required, and so by the time you’re actually ready to deposit your final thesis copy to the institution’s library… it’s at least 3.5 years since you started. I submitted just a day before the four year mark, and had to wait 5 months for my examination results to come back, then an additional four months to graduate (thanks COVID… I still haven’t worn my mushroom hat and Hogwarts gown!). That’s a long time to be doing something.
Now, this applies to everything below, but if you’re enjoying yourself, the four years will be a breeze. If you’ve handled everything okay (even with the bad days), then you’re gonna be fine.
But if your gut is telling you that you’re not really good at handling the multitude of bad lab days that are ahead of you… SERIOUSLY consider whether this is for you. If you’re thinking of continuing the same project as what you had as a Hons/Masters student, just multiply the bad days relative to the length of the Ph. D. And then multiply it by a hundred because you’re gonna have so many bad days. 😂 It’s just the reality of it. It’s good to be frank about these things, I think.
2. You’re gonna be on very little money for a while
This is usually more of an ‘oof’ for those that have been working prior to their Ph. Ds, because the drop in income can be a bit of a shock.
When I started my Ph. D in 2016, the scholarship rate for the Australian Postgraduate Award (APA), which is now the Research Training Program (RTP), was $26,288/year. Now it’s apparently at $31,200/year, because it increases a little each year to adjust for inflation. If you consider that most will be living in the city (because research institutions tend to be in the city), and living expenses are therefore quite expensive… the money does disappear quickly. Yes, you’ll be able to manage, but you won’t be saving for a home loan any time soon. Even if you forgo the smashed avo brunch dates you love oh so much.
On the plus side- it’s better than Youth Allowance. 😅
But this is if you’re lucky enough to get a scholarship. Obviously things change if you’re unable to get a scholarship and need to fend for yourself financially.
Either way, it’s just something to be aware of. You’re not gonna be earning the big bucks while you’re doing a Ph. D. You can supplement your income with paid work outside of your project (e.g. teaching), but you can’t earn heaps out of it- let alone on a regular basis. You’ve got your project to worry about.
Now, this is all if you’re just a wee student with no prior qualifications. I know of medical doctors (MDs) who do their Ph. Ds while still working as an MD, and that’s just cheating. 😂😂😂
If you’re in the same sort of boat as me, then yeah, you’re going to have to live with the fact that all your other mates are earning real money while you’re still on student wages for the next few years.
3. Do you even need a Ph. D?
Do you want to become a Post-Doc? Do you want to be a Lab Head?
Do you want to climb through the academic career ladder? No matter the massive odds against you?
If you’ve answered no to all of these, then…
Why would you even consider doing a Ph. D? 😂 Do a Masters, maybe, and get into the work force in a different role (or industry).
If you’re unsure, that’s okay- but if you’re dead set against the academic ladder, then there’s very little point in investing your time to getting a Ph. D. 😅 Might as well gain the skills and experience while earning real money as a real employee somewhere else.
4. Your project will be more complicated and open ended
As I mentioned in the first point, Honours projects tend to be designed around the 6 month work schedule. They’re usually simpler in nature, and they usually have clear cut goals you need to achieve. Sure, the direction might change a little as you go along- but it’s more common for them to just be well-structured.
A Ph. D project, though… it’s much more broad and open ended.
You’ll have a broad goal and aim/s.
But the time frame is more… ‘bleh’. Maybe it’ll take six months to finish off aim 1. Maybe it’ll take 2 years. Maybe it’ll take the entirety of your four years to get enough data to even write about aim 1 😅. You just don’t know.
If you already struggled with the semi-open ended-ness of your Honours or Masters project, then you might need to think about whether you’re up for a never ending cycle of clutching at straws while getting washed down the rapid currents of academic research. Sure- you might snag on something in time, but… you also might not.
It’s a massive gamble.
So I hope you like gambling. 😂
5. You do need to love it, to a degree
Again, this is with anything in life. You don’t have to have an all consuming passion for research, but you do need to get something out of it that makes you feel… content.
Even in the face of failure.
Because there will be plenty of it. There is no ‘give and take’ in research. It’s mostly just ‘take’.
So if you can not only withstand the workload, but also take some enjoyment out of it… that’s probably a good sign that you’re in the right place.
If you don’t find any enjoyment in it at all (ever)… It’s not worth it.
6. (For those with bad supervision/work mates) don’t lock yourself in for a rough time
Don’t worry- neither of my supervisors were crazy. 😂 Those who’ve been reading this blog for a while will know that I still think very highly of them.
But I do know plenty who have/had supervisors who are/were just completely and utterly nuts.
Listen to your gut. If your Hons/Masters experience showed you how little time they invested in you- don’t sign up for more! No- they’re not going to magically get better all of a sudden. They’ll just keep doing the same thing over and over again, because they likely don’t see their behaviour as a problem (even if you have the courage to point it out to them).
This also applies to lab mates- other Post-Docs, techs, and other Ph. D students. They’re not permanent fixtures, but they’ll be around you every single day during your long work hours.
If shouting or screaming got them results (out of fear), then they’ll keep doing it.
If abusing or emotionally manipulating got them results, then they’ll keep doing it.
If guilt-tripping or passive-aggression got them results, then they’ll just. keep. doing. it.
Red flags. All of the above are red flags. Don’t sign up to be an underling for another 3-5 years. No matter how prestigious they are. You might get the title and qualifications, but you might not like the person you had to become in order to get it.
Now, with all of these things in mind- the biggest point is this.
Only you can make this decision.
There is no right or wrong answer. The pros and cons list will contain items in both columns. You just have to weigh up the options and see whether this is the right thing for you.
Like with anything in life- you just need to have good, healthy coping mechanisms for when times are rough, and try to maintain some level of a work-life balance so that you don’t burn out. You’re entitled to four weeks paid annual leave, so don’t forget to take them, too.
Surround yourself in good people who can be objective and kind- wherever you go.
Because if you can listen to lots of different peoples’ opinions (especially those that care about you), weigh up the options carefully, and then still want to do a Ph. D… that’s a stronger, more confident decision than, ‘oh I dunno what else to do’ or, ‘I think I want to do a Ph. D?’.
And just remember, if it ain’t right- just stop. There’s no need to trudge through it all if you’re not getting anything out of it. If it’s not making you a better person, then… you don’t have to stick with it. Nothing is permanent, in that sense.
Sounds easy, right? 😅😂
A Ph. D graduate in Microbiology, residing in Victoria, Australia. Currently working in multiple locations but still in the STEM field. 👀 🦠 🧫 🧬