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6 Reasons Not to Do a PhD

Ah summer. . . beaches, cocktails, relaxation, daydreaming, decision making, anxiety, freaking out!

I’m sorry to mess up your favorite time of the year, but for you, as for many others before and after, summer is also the time to make important decisions and plan the next steps in life. This might be especially true if you’ve just graduated and are trying to decide whether to carry on to a PhD.

Well, this article is here to help you – but not in the way you might think.

Instead of trying to persuade you that a doctorate is the best choice, I’m going to list some of the reasons why you shouldn’t do a PhD. So, lie comfortably in your hammock for a little longer and have a read.

PhD study – the reality

With the number of PhD holders rising in the last years, along with greater competition for academic and industry jobs, you might start to feel that a doctorate is necessary for career success. That might be true for some roles in higher education and research, but it isn’t true for other jobs. And you should think carefully before doing a PhD ‘just for the sake of it’.

Don’t get me wrong here. The PhD journey is a once-in-a-lifetime experience and there are plenty of amazing reasons to follow this path. I haven’t regretted it for a moment myself. But there are some realities I would like to share. Things that should have probably redirected me away from the PhD if a was a different person. What if that different person is someone like you?

#1 PhDs might make some doors trickier to open

A PhD degree can certainly open some specific doors for you, career-wise. In fact, it’s generally indispensable for an academic career.

But bear in mind that a doctorate can close some other doors – or at least make them trickier to open. Having a PhD obviously makes you extremely specialized in a certain field. This is great for some careers, but the flexibility of your skills isn’t always obvious. Many employers might regard you as ‘over-qualified’ for a position and worry that you might not be committed to it, or have salary and progression expectations they might not be able to meet.

You may need to work a bit harder convincing people that you’re the right candidate for some jobs.

#2 PhDs are hard

Do you really enjoy having an ever-present task with few deadlines (except the big one at the end)? Do you like balancing different sets of multitasking whilst also multitasking about something else? Are you ready to have your project at the back of your mind while chilling with your girlfriend / boyfriend or dining with your parents?

I am not going to lie to you. There are times when a PhD feels like it takes all you have mentally and emotionally. It might not be an everyday hell, but make sure that you know what you’re getting into – and don’t just find yourself envying your non-PhD friends, living their normal lives, right from the first month.

#3 PhDs force you out of your comfort zone

Spoiler: at some point during a PhD you will have to go out there and talk about your research at conferences, workshops, institute journal clubs, thesis committee meetings, etc. There are all kinds of events (with their respectful deadlines of course) that will need you to be shiny and well prepared as you stand next to your poster or in front of your power point.

So, whilst a PhD may seem ideal if you just enjoy working in the lab, on the computer or in the library, it will also challenge you in ways you may not expect. Bear that in mind if you suffer from ‘stage fright’ or hate socialising.

#4 PhDs don’t involve teaching – except when they do

Do you feel that you had enough lectures and exams already and you can’t stand more taught classes? Well, you may miss more formal learning once you’re buried below a ton of papers each month!

And you may still find yourself involved in the other side of teaching. Are you ready to take on the burden and responsibility of passing down all that you know to Bachelors and Masters degree students (or even newer PhDs)? Do you have the patience to stand by their side and guide them while time is also pressuring you?

Sure, it’s a rewarding experience (and something else for the CV) but it’s another aspect of PhD study they don’t always tell you about.

#5 PhDs are not just about meeting other people’s expectations

So, your family expects you to do a PhD. You’ve been a great student and the doctorate should come naturally as the next step, right? And calling you “doctor” would make them even prouder.

Or maybe your friends are going for a PhD. You studied together, you had fun during that time, they seem committed, they are definitely not smarter or better than you. So why shouldn’t you also give it a try? After all you don’t want to stay behind. These are the worst reasons to do a PhD. And the best reasons not to.

#6 PhDs are specialised – they will make you specialise too

Finally, if there was just one thing that would make me reconsider my PhD decision it’s the extreme specialisation. I have always considered myself a ‘generalist’ rather than a ‘specialist’. I enjoy many things at the same time. And I really do enjoy things. I am a crossfit addict and I love writing songs on my guitar and learning languages. I am also generally curious and have an affection for history and geography (reminder: I study cancer immunology).

If there is one thing in my PhD that makes me sad is that it takes so much time away from my other interests. Immune cells are cool yeah. . . but reaching a 100kg deadlift is also important to me. Since a PhD is such a long-term commitment, please set your priorities straight!

Final thoughts

After you stayed with me for so long (hopefully refreshing your sunscreen in between), here comes the conclusion. A PhD is a great experience giving you plenty of opportunities. But it isn’t meant for everyone, so do think seriously about whether it is meant for you. A thriving research technician, science communicator, policy expert or heritage worker is much more valuable than an exhausted and miserable PhD student.

Whatever step you take next, cheers to a great summer and an even greater new start!




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Last Updated: 15 August 2019