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Posted on 21 Apr '21

To PhD or Not to PhD?


A PhD is a prestigious academic qualification, but is that enough to justify earning one? And what can a doctorate offer if you're thinking of working outside of academia? At the time of writing, Victoria Huber was working professionally on a research internship and considering studying for a PhD programme.


To PhD or not to PhD? That is the question - for prospective postgrad researchers, at least.

In a world in which more and more people are educated to degree level, going for a PhD is no longer a path only for those aiming to pursue an academic career. Instead, having a PhD can seem like a route to other higher-level career options.

But is it really necessary to have a PhD – at least in certain fields – in order to succeed and not be stuck with an average job without further options to advance?

Or is a doctorate just a luxury, an extra for those truly dedicated to their subject, those who are constantly curious and feel they have not learned enough during their previous studies, the future generation of geniuses and professors?

My experience

Your decision whether to go for a PhD or not will be very personal and, like every other graduate, you’ll ultimately have to make it for yourself.

I’d like to share my experiences so far and perhaps help a few other indecisive graduates. Maybe you’re one of them?

What I should mention before jumping into the deep waters of this existential question, though, is that my background is in Life Sciences. So some of my experience might not apply directly to quite unrelated fields.

The career question

There is one thing, however, that I would advise each and every prospective student to do, no matter your subject or how long you have already been planning on doing (or not doing) a PhD:

Reflect upon your decision carefully before you commit to a doctorate (or decide to turn one down!). Thoroughly evaluate all the career options, both in academia and outside, that might be open to you after you graduate.

There may be career paths you aren’t even aware of just after graduating and these might present a great alternative to PhD studies. Or perhaps you already have an idea of the career you eventually want to pursue. In this case, you might do well to ask whether a PhD is indeed required or even helpful in getting you there.

As tough and complicated as such a decision might be, there are some reasons which generally shouldn't be your main motivation for doing a PhD.

Don’t do a doctorate just:

  • For the sake of the academic title / degree, i.e. to have those three extra letters behind your name
  • Because most of your peers from university do (everyone is different and what might be ideal for one person does not necessarily apply to another)
  • Because you think the qualification will automatically lead to a specific job - or a higher salary (the reality is more complicated)

I initially thought of adding “because you don’t know what else to do with your degree” to this list, but this approach has actually worked out pretty well for some people I know. Perhaps because this attitude is likely to make you enter your postgraduate studies with fewer expectations than someone already planning for that professorship in 2030?

The industrial option

Another question that might arise at some point while contemplating a PhD is whether you should do a PhD with no intention of following an academic career.

Is it wrong to earn a doctorate for the sole purpose of qualifying for ‘better’ positions outside of academia?

I believe it is not. There are many happy and successful PhD students who know that they don’t want to proceed to a postdoc but rather aim for a good position in industry – carrying out research (or managing it!) for private companies.

The real question

So, when is a PhD the right option for you? And how can you tell?

From what I have experienced so far, I believe the decision comes down to one key attribute: Dedication.

Ask yourself this essential question and really reflect upon it before making a decision: Are you passionate enough about your research, your (prospective) PhD project, to put up with failures, setbacks, long hours and (probably) low income for the next few years? Do you love what you will be doing enough to settle for all of that?

Clearly the real question to ask, then, is: "how on earth am I supposed to know if I am dedicated enough?"

Again, there is probably no clear answer to this – it is impossible to set a 'threshold of enthusiasm.'

However, I have come to recognise a few things all the successful PhD students and even postdocs I have met so far (and that’s quite a few) have in common:

  • They are genuinely passionate about their field. They don’t just leave their work at work and are happy to think about it beyond the lab. They may even come up with some of their best ideas in the most work-unrelated environments.
  • They enjoy talking about their research and sharing their newest findings.
  • They want to be up to date when it comes to the newest developments in their field – it is not just a necessary burden to stay on top of the scholarship.
  • They’re also tough and able to deal with failure. At one point or the other, there will be failure and then it all comes back (again!) to whether you are really into what you are doing. Because this enthusiasm is what will help get you back to your feet after a setback.

My advice

Proceeding to a PhD was the obvious next step after graduating from my MSc degree, just like almost all of my fellow students. It took me quite some time to actually realise that there are many different paths worth considering – not just academia.

Throughout my masters’ degree and the work on my thesis project, people mostly only asked where I was going to do my PhD rather than if. My environment was very orientated towards a scientific career and sometimes it felt like the general consensus was that someone was only half-educated without a PhD.

If you are passionate about your field – whether or not you have already figured out your long-term career goals – a PhD could be a great option. Equally, you might even regret not doing so in retrospective (heading back to academia can be an option, but it isn’t always easy). But, if you’re only considering a PhD because you want the qualification, you may want to ask yourself how dedicated you will be when it comes to doing the actual research for three years (or more).




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