To PhD or not to PhD?

As a fresher at UCL, I was convinced that I wanted to do a PhD in something elaborate and clever-sounding, like the unification of quantum field theory with general relativity. I thought living an academic life meant languidly loafing, writing out the odd equation.

I realised that I enjoyed talking about physics more than I enjoyed actually doing it; I wanted to talk about the results of other people’s hard work instead of doing the research myself. This is one reason why I am not doing a PhD, but am interviewing PhD candidates instead.

I have set out to challenge the preconceptions that I had about doctoral research so that my choices, and yours, are better informed.

Finances

Most people who started a degree after 2010 will have a student debt in excess of £30,000. Having taken six long years to complete my own degree without much gainful employment in the gaps, I am keen to start earning to pay off this rising debt.

Then again, Dr. Tom says that he “would definitely be earning less as a data scientist if I did not do my PhD.”

So, is the potential for a higher wage long-term enough to justify an expensive PhD? If your sole motivation is money then go and work for a hedge fund. But if you have a real interest, then the finances appear to balance out over time.

Isolation

I quickly got the overwhelming impression that the PhD experience is a solitary and isolating one.

Sara*, who is completing a PhD in Computational Physics at Cambridge, says:

I found the first month or so pretty hard from a social perspective. I went from living with a close group of friends and my boyfriend to moving to a city where I didn’t know anyone. [I had] no lectures to meet people in and everyone being that bit older made it a really different experience from starting undergrad. 

I recently completed my degree with Open University having transferred from UCL. Although I did everything I could to make my experience as sociable as possible, hanging out in the student bars with my friends across London, it was undeniably a very lonely time. By the end, I was so sick of working alone that I couldn’t bear the thought of studying alone again.

But there is such a thing as collaboration in academia. On-campus work presents an abundance of opportunities to make friends. I was lonely because, with the Open University, I had no campus.

Jakub explains that a situation is what you make of it: “I mostly work with other people, but that’s because I set it up that way. I still do a lot of work on my own, but the parts where there are other people around are my favourite ones. I try to have as many moments like this as possible”

I also asked what advice you would give someone who is thinking about beginning a PhD.

“Don’t do a PhD” was the message I got from Tom in the last year of his PhD. Although, I think the message is more specifically “don’t do a PhD on grazing incidence for x-ray mirrors”

“Consider all the alternatives,” says Jakub. “Only do this if you need it to get where you want to be in life.”

And for those who are committed to their research interests: “I think it really is about matching the right supervisor to the right student. Even a perfect supervisor on paper will have certain students that won’t enjoy their way of working.” – Sara

“Don’t narrow the field down too much, and find a supervisor who fits your personality, who you can have a good relationship with.” – Jakub

Jakub recommends that you keep a journal, too.

*Sara’s name has been changed.

Feature image: Suad Kamardeen/Unsplash.



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