by Monika Maleszewska, contributor
When I was a little girl, a classmate said to me: “Monika, perhaps you are smart at school… but you are not so smart in life!” Heavy words for an 8 year old. But words that still haunt me today.
The public debate on the devaluation of the PhD degree and on the excess of PhD graduates in the job market has, sadly, accompanied me all along my PhD track. I’ve heard accusations that a PhD is just a way to extend our studentship and postpone adult decisions. Could it be true that these presumably talented people, who continue with their development and education onto the PhD track, are after all the ones who are “not so smart in life”?
I used to protest: no, we all want to do science, that’s why we do a PhD! Now, with a few years’ hindsight struggling with my own PhD, I come to realise the reasons that lead people towards this decision are many and complex. While some are legitimate, others are no good at all. If you are just following the herd of your peer group or looking for an alternative to a regular job, you might add to the pool of ‘involuntary PhDs’ – people whose choice to enter a PhD track was either random or due to lack of a clear alternative career path when they graduated. Here are my thoughts on how to navigate this important career decision.
You SHOULD do a PhD because…
- You want a career in science
A PhD is a prerequisite for an academic career. If you are already set on science, then go for it.
- You want to see what being a scientist is like
Probing an academic career by doing a PhD is probably the best way to find out what it really is like. It is fine to be uncertain about whether this is the career for you, and to be flexible towards considering other options.
- You like doing research
The great joy of working in research is that, with a bit of luck and (a lot of) persistence, you might end up having your hobby for a job. Whether it is research in general or a specific topic that fascinates you, it can be a good choice to follow your heart and give it a try.
- Your dream job requires you to have a PhD
You may know for a fact your dream job requires a PhD, for instance if you’ve been told by.your potential employer. Even if you are not in love with science, a PhD may be an important step in your career path thanks to added skills and value. For instance, learning to be persistent and focused on your goal (well, the thesis).
You SHOULDN’T do a PhD because…
- Everybody else does
Do not follow the crowd. It’s such a big commitment – look instead for career options that fit you.
- You can’t find another job
The regular job market does not offer any attractive alternative that would match your qualifications. If you feel like you have to do a PhD, consider if it is really what you want to do. An accidental research will, before long, make you miserable. Interest and enthusiasm are key: without them your PhD job will easily turn into a lengthy frustration.
- You like lab work
As valid as it seems, it can be a very wrong reason to start a PhD. Lab work is just the tip of the PhD iceberg. On the way through your PhD research you will gradually take on many other tasks: design of experiments, literature research, writing and publishing papers – to name a few. Make sure that you are up for a challenge and eager to learn.
- You have been offered a position
You feel flattered and think (probably righteously) that you are good enough to pursue a PhD. This reason is not bad per se. But give it some thought: especially if you are serious about a scientific career, consider all pros and cons of the specific position, compare it with other options and choose the best one.
- You want to be a student a bit longer
I do not believe that this is ever a primary reason. If it is for you, do not be fooled: they might call it a PhD “student”, but most of the time you are in for a serious job, and a stressful one!
- You think a PhD degree will guarantee you a better job than a MSc
If you have a specific job in mind, go to career events, ask around, read job offers. Find out what they really need. I was once surprised that a position I found attractive would not only require a PhD, but also postdoctoral experience. On the other hand, I heard representative from another company complain that they need to “reprogram” PhD graduates into a company-oriented mindset, so they actually prefer fresh MSc graduates. In a nutshell: do not rush to assume a PhD will be useful anyway. First, get informed!
It is usually a combination of these and perhaps other reasons that lead people like you and me onto the PhD track. To avoid the misery of an ‘involuntary PhD’ it is important to try to identify your true professional interests as early as possible and make sure the choice to do a PhD is really well thought out and matches up with your career aspirations. Make sure, in other words, the decision is “smart in life”.
Monika Maleszewska is a medical sciences PhD student currently in the fourth year of her doctorate at the University Medical Center Groningen in the Netherlands, and one of the winners of our columnist contest. Keep an eye out for Monika’s work here on the blog and in the Careers pages of Nature magazine