Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Is a PhD the right choice for you?

We're at that time of year again when all the PhD vacancies are sprouting up and you might - if you're not a PhD student already - be thinking about applying for a post.  Over the next two weeks, Not Just Another PhD will have a series of posts about PhDs and deciding whether they're the right choice for you.  It's a big decision after all!

Our original artwork today is by Debbie Malcolm.

So, you're nearly finished your undergraduate degree or maybe a Masters, and you're thinking about taking your academic studies further.  The pinnacle of academic achievement - the PhD.  But then, the thing is, there tends to be a lot of mysticism around PhDs.  What are they?  What do they involve?  What do you really need to be considering before you apply or accept a position?

There are a huge number of answers to those questions and if you're already a PhD student, you might feel I'm missing some out (in which case please share your thoughts in the comments!) but I'm going to do my best to cover the biggies.

What's a PhD Anyway?
You couldn't ever describe the ins and outs of everything involved in what exactly a PhD is in a short section, so I'll do my best to summarise.  And also, please note my experience is from a science-based PhD so it's a little different than an Arts one.  
For a sciencey PhD in a UK institution, you are normally given four years to complete your work.  At the end of those four years you submit a thesis (also referred to as a dissertation) which is between 80,000 - 100,000 words in length.  Essentially you're producing a book with a series of chapters.  You start with an introductory chapter (your literature review) then perhaps a methodology chapter if you are using complex equipment.  You'll follow this up with experimental chapters that are in the same format as journal articles, just longer, before finishing with a discussion chapter, references and appendices.

Handing in your thesis isn't quite the end though.  You need to complete an oral defence - a viva - of your work.  Format varies slightly country to country, but in the UK you have an internal examiner, who is an expert in the area, or related area, from within your department (but not your supervisor) and an external examiner.  You'll also have a convener present, who keeps things running smoothely.  You need to pass this oral defence and make any changes they suggest before you can graduate and officially be called "Doctor".

The Practical Requirements
As with everything these days, entry to PhD programmes are getting more competitive.  You will need a 1st or usually a high band 2:1 (which is one consisting of some As and the rest Bs), but all universities are different and will state their requirements clearly in the advertisement.  All is not lost though if you get a 2:2.  In that case, I'd recommend enrolling in a Masters first to demonstrate your capabilities.

Some universities might also look for research experience, so if see if you can get some voluntary research experience - it's a great boost to your CV.  If your department doesn't have an existing research apprenticeship scheme, email lecturers and see if there's anything you can do to help.  It might just be coding, data entry or something similar, but I can tell you from experience that these things make a huge difference.

Other Considerations
A PhD is different from any other type of qualification you'll have undertaken before.  Your end-of-first-year assessment and final hand in aside, you have very little in the way of concrete deadlines.  The free-form work style can be very unnerving for some people, so you need to think about whether you'd be able to work well under those conditions.
You need to think about finances too.  There are a lot of organisations and charities you can apply to for funding, and your potential supervisor will advise you on ones appropriate to your situation.  I have known some people who were so determined to do a PhD they took out a loan to finance their fees and living costs.  Unless you have a very stable financial background, I would not recommend this.  Go get some more experience, sign up for a Masters if you want, but I think it's too big an investment in this day and age.  But that's just my two cents.

Other questions might involve more thought, and not just on your part.  Are you able to move to do a PhD?  Do you have family, a partner or children who might also be affected by this?  More importantly - are you willing to move?  The answer doesn't necessarily have to be yes.  If, for example, your partner has a career where you live, you might not want to throw that away for you to pursue a PhD.  That doesn't rule out a PhD for you, but it might limit your options.  It's all things you need to think about.

A final note...
So far, despite all its hardships, doing my PhD has been one of the best things I've ever done in my life.  I love it (even when I hate it).  But I'm not going to lie to you, PhDs are really, really hard.  There are times when you feel so lonely and isolated and frustrated and angry at it all it drives you crazy.  I wouldn't want anyone to sign up thinking it'll all be sunshine and rainbows because sadly that's not the case.

I'm not trying to put a downer on your excitement.  I remember how exciting it was when I was applying for PhDs!  I just think it's important to make this decision in an informed way. I still think that it's one of the most rewarding things a person can do.  If you want a career in research or academia, it's a perfect choice for you.  There are so many positives - what you'll learn about your subject and about yourself, chances to travel for conferences, friends you'll make, people you'll meet, things you'll do.  And as long as you know it's the right decision for you that will, ultimately, get you through anything.

There's already a lot of advice on this blog (and more to come!) and others like it about how to cope with difficulties you'll encounter along the way.  What you need to think about now is getting started.  And if you decide a PhD is for you, welcome aboard.  It's a crazy journey, but it's a fun one.

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