PhD Tips: 10 Things to Consider before Pursuing your PhD

We’ve all thought about doing a PhD at some point in our lives. Some still keep the option open. The beauty about pursuing a PhD in any subject that interests you is that it’s never too late to go for it. There is no field that is too saturated or worked upon, where new things cannot be discovered. Every experiment, observation, and conclusion is a magnet for an array of possibilities – some which can even become revolutionary in the future.

Although the pressing question of finances does occur, most PhD students choose passion over pay and delve quite fairly in the world of stipends and health care. Most enroll in these programmes because they want to discover and leave behind an untouchable legacy, one that will help create a proactive change in society and its billions.

However, there is quite a fair share of instances where PhD candidates drop out midway through their course, wasting a good couple of years of their lives and resources. Everyone knows that pursuing your PhD is hard work and requires tremendous amounts of dedication and steel will. But sometimes one may waver.

For all those planning to enroll into PhD programmes and dedicate the next three to five years of their lives to academia and research, you’re probably getting advice from dozens of students, professors, administrators your parents and the Internet. Sometimes it’s hard to know which advice to focus on and what will make the biggest difference in the long-run.

here are a few things to consider before taking this monumental decision.

Read: The Illustrated Guide To A Ph.D

Keeping the Passion Alive

This probably sounds like a Bon Jovi song, but that’s not what we’re talking about here. A PhD programme offers students the opportunity to completely immerse themselves in their subject of interest and receive a monthly stipend for it. Loosely translated, this would mean getting paid for working on your favourite subject. Sounds spectacular, right? However, once a year or two goes by, you could find yourself a little bit stuck. Too much of one subject tends to get wearisome and frustrating, and you may convince yourself that you aren’t too interested in it anyway. This is the danger spot for any PhD student. So the question you need to ask yourself is, are you really in this for the long run? Or is it a temporary interest, lined up to change with the season?

Research and Knowledge

Many students don’t internalize this idea until they have jumped head-first into a PhD program. The goal is not to complete an assigned set of courses as in an undergraduate program, but to develop significant and original research in your area of expertise. You will have required courses to take, especially if you do not have a master’s degree yet, but these are designed merely to compliment your research and provide a broad and deep knowledge base to support you in your research endeavors.

At the end of your PhD program, you will be judged on your research, not on how well you did in your courses. Grades are not critical as long as you maintain the minimum GPA requirement, and you should not spend too much time on courses at the expense of research projects. Graduate courses tend to be designed to allow you to take away what you will find useful to your research more than to drill a rigid set of facts and techniques into your brain.

Also See: How to Juggle a Full-Time Job and a Part-Time PhD

Area of Study

You might be studying the function and regulation of membrane proteins or doing a computational analysis of the conductivity of different battery designs, but that doesn’t mean your PhD project must revolve around similar projects. The transition between college or another research job to a PhD program is one of the main transitions in your life when it is perfectly acceptable to completely change research areas.

If you are doing computation, you may want to switch to lab-based work or vice versa. If you are working in biology but have always had an interest in photonics research, now is the time to try it out. You may find that you love the alternative research and devote your PhD to it, you might hate it and fall back on your previous area of study — or you may even discover a unique topic that incorporates both subjects.

One of the best aspects of the PhD program is that you can make the research your own. Remember, the answer to the question “Why are you doing this research?” should not be “Well, because it’s what I’ve been working on for the past few years already.”While my undergraduate research was in atomic physics, I easily transitioned into applied physics and materials science for my PhD program and was able to apply much of what I learned as an undergraduate to my current research. If you are moving from the sciences to a non-scientific field such as social sciences or humanities, this advice can still apply, though the transition is a bit more difficult and more of a permanent commitment.

Curbing Expenses

It’s very easy to state that money doesn’t matter, because you’re doing this to change the world. But once you embark on your PhD journey and assure your parents that you don’t need any more pocket money, you’ll be pitched forward into a pool of expenses while also balancing your social lifestyle, and the truth is you may not have enough for both. At these times, the lure of a job in a mainstream industry may seem tempting, but you need to know if you have the willpower to not get swayed by the big bucks.

See: The key to a successful PhD thesis?

Location of University

The first consideration in choosing a PhD program should be, “Is there research at this university that I am passionate about?” After all, you will have to study this topic in detail for four or more years. But when considering the location of a university, your first thought should not be, “I’m going to be in the lab all the time, so what does it matter if I’m by the beach, in a city, or in the middle of nowhere.”

Contrary to popular belief, you will have a life outside of the lab, and you will have to be able to live with it for four or more years. Unlike when you were an undergraduate, your social and extracurricular life will revolve less around the university community, so the environment of the surrounding area is important. Do you need a city atmosphere to be productive? Or is your ideal location surrounded by forests and mountains or by a beach? Is being close to your family important? Imagine what it will be like living in the area during the times you are not doing research; consider what activities will you do and how often will you want to visit family.

While many of the PhD programs that accepted me had research that truly excited me, the only place I could envision living for five or more years was Boston, as the city I grew up near and whose environment and culture I love, and to be close to my family.

While location is more important than you think, the reputation and prestige of the university is not. In graduate school, the reputation of the individual department you are joining — and sometimes even the specific research group you work in — are more important. There, you will develop research collaborations and professional connections that will be crucial during your program and beyond. When searching for a job after graduation, other scientists will look at your specific department, the people you have worked with and the research you have done.

Also See: Top PhD Entrance Exams in India

Self-doubt

When you’re signing yourself up for a PhD programme, know that you are dedicating a good three to five years of your life to it. This may seem like a cakewalk at the time, but as the days crawl by, it can get a bit frustrating. The ‘what ifs’ may rear their ugly heads and you’ll be plagued with doubts about wasting your best years on campus. However, you need to remind yourself that these are the most fulfilling years, where you will learn everything you want to and need to and some more. So by the time you’re done, you’ll be a definite pro.

Time Management

After surviving college, you may think you have mastered the ability to squeeze in your coursework, extracurricular activities and even some sleep. In a PhD program, time management reaches a whole new level. You will not only have lectures to attend and homework to do. You will have to make time for your research, which will include spending extended periods of time in the lab, analyzing data, and scheduling time with other students to collaborate on research.

Also, you will most likely have to teach for a number of semesters, and you will want to attend any seminar that may be related to your research or that just peaks your interest. To top it all off, you will still want to do many of those extracurricular activities you did as an undergraduate. While in the abstract, it may seem simple enough to put this all into your calendar and stay organized, you will find quickly enough that the one hour you scheduled for a task might take two or three hours, putting you behind on everything else for the rest of the day or forcing you to cut other planned events. Be prepared for schedules to go awry, and be willing to sacrifice certain activities. For some, this might be sleep; for others, it might be an extracurricular activity or a few seminars they were hoping to attend. In short, don’t panic when things don’t go according to plan; anticipate possible delays and be ready to adapt.

Related: 101 Tips for Finishing Your PhD Quickly

Dealing with the Road-less Travelled

There is a chance that you might feel like you’re slowing your life down when you see your childhood best friends pitch forward through time, doing everything at the ‘right time’. Your parents may be on your case about how your nosy aunts are asking them when you’ll tie the knot, how your biological clock is ticking, and how you aren’t getting any younger. There will be different kinds of pressure from all angles about your life and your decisions, but it is up to you to keep your head held high and stick to your decisions.

No real breaks

In a stereotypical “9-to-5” job, when the workday is over or the weekend arrives, you can generally forget about your work. And a vacation provides an even longer respite. But in a PhD program, your schedule becomes “whenever you find time to get your work done.” You might be in the lab during regular work hours or you might be working until 10 p.m. or later to finish an experiment. And the only time you might have available to analyze data might be at 1 a.m. Expect to work during part of the weekend, too. Graduate students do go on vacations but might still have to do some data analysis or a literature search while away.

As a PhD student, it might be hard to stop thinking about the next step in an experiment or that data sitting on your computer or that paper you were meaning to start. While I imagine some students can bifurcate their mind between graduate school life and everything else, that’s quite hard for many of us to do. No matter what, my research lies somewhere in the back of my head. In short, your schedule is much more flexible as a PhD student, but as a result, you never truly take a break from your work.

While this may seem like a downer, remember that you should have passion for the research you work on (most of the time), so you should be excited to think up new experiments or different ways to consider that data you have collected. Even when I’m lying in bed about to fall asleep, I am sometimes ruminating about aspects of my experiment I could modify or what information I could do a literature search on to gain new insights. A PhD program is quite the commitment and rarely lives up to expectations – but it is well worth the time and effort you will spend for something that truly excites you.

Also See: How NOT to Write a PhD Thesis – Top 10 Tips for Doctoral Failure!

Changing the world?

Most PhD candidates join the programmes thinking they are going to change the world. Be it in science or arts, a sudden discovery, an untried experiment – anything could spark a new solution or answer a lot of age-old questions. But you have to be prepared for the fact that not every project and every discovery could land you the Nobel Prize. Some of your work will be considered and distributed proudly and some won’t. You need to know that you are in this to contribute, and sometimes, you may not receive the recognition you think you deserve.

But the trick is to know that in whichever way possible, you are making a difference. You are contributing to the plethora of solutions that are being unleashed into the world, to help change it for the absolute better. And that, right there, is why every single bit of effort and hard work you put in counts.


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