Jul 3, 2020 | What you should know before starting a PhD

This blog post is dedicated to Master students who are at the end of their Master’s programs, and wonder if the PhD track is best for them, or rather, they should go for the industry job instead. If you happen to be a PhD candidate or PhD graduate reading this post, it would be great if you also share your thoughts, and think of some other advice you could give to Master’s students and drop it in the comments below (yes, this is a call to action! :)).

WHY IS THIS AN IMPORTANT CHOICE, AND WHY IS THIS AN UNIMPORTANT CHOICE AT THE SAME TIME?

First of all, working with Master’s students on their career developments feels great! In the blog post “The tree” dedicated to how employment changes people’s personality (in a negative way), it was explained why: the vast majority of fresh graduates have energy and a positive mindset, are idealistic, not cynical, and willing to work hard — especially if it’s for a good cause. But if they step into the wrong environment, then after just a few years they might become cynical, broken people with a learned helplessness syndrome — that’s why it is so important to make a good (or at least, a well-calculated) decision of “where to go” at the start. This decision is hard though; as a typical Master’s student, you didn’t have much practical working experience just yet and you just don’t know what works for you in the working environment and what doesn’t. With jobs, it’s a little bit like with relationships — most people don’t succeed at the first go, as they don’t know at that point which types of people they would resonate with. Even if you have some internships under your belt, an intern and an employee are two substantially different types of experience as the expectations towards an intern are much lower than those towards an employee. So, you need to just accept that your first job after you graduate from the university is just a starting point in the long, 40-45 year-long journey — the longest journey in your whole life — and that you will most likely need to change your life plans and strategy on the job market at least a few times in the process. Hoping that your first job will end up with a straight career path towards the top in this exact area of the market, is like hoping that your high school sweetheart will become your spouse and that you will live happily together ever after.

That’s why in your first job, it is important to choose an environment in which you can grow and develop in many directions depending on what you will discover about yourself in the process. This choice is important because you need to find an environment in which your natural potential won’t be blocked, but at the same time, it is not as important in terms of where you end up as a professional in the long run.

THE RIGHT AND THE WRONG REASONS TO CHOOSE ACADEMIA

This is a bit controversial subject. There are diverse opinions on whether it’s a good idea to go for a PhD with an assumption that it is just an additional 3-5 years-long professional training before looking for the first job in industry. To my mind, this is not a good motivation as you always need to think of the alternatives: what (constructive) things would you do with the same amount of time if you didn’t go for a PhD? People who go straight to industry after Master’s, have enough time to gain practical experience and build expertise in their branch of industry before they hit 30, so they usually end up in better positions than those who spend a few years behind closed doors doing a PhD first. Also, since the number of PhD graduates substantially increased within the last two decades, PhD by itself is no longer unique enough to make you a special commodity in any way. For this reason, it is advisable to choose a PhD only when you are a fanatic of science, and if you seriously consider an academic career as a way of living.

One remark to make here, is that it’s the worst possible scenario to go for a PhD just because you have no better idea of what to do with yourself, and you want to postpone your career decisions by another few years. Roughly, 15-20% of all PhD candidates have this exact motivation. Take into account that the time in your life in which you will be doing your PhD, which is typically some time between 23-30 years old, is also the time when most people reach the top of their creativity, energy, and initiative — and after that, the energy level and the affinity to take personal risks starts rapidly decreasing. So, do you really want to spend this time to lock yourself behind a closed door and struggle with very complex research problems thinking that this move just buys you more time to think about your future? For most people, graduate school is physically and emotionally draining, and going for it as “the easy solution” is comparable to going to Marines thinking that it’s just giving yourself more time before you start your adult life. Frankly, no one with that motivation would ever be happy in academia.

To sum up, the best motivation to go to academia, is probably when you are deep in love with the research topic from your Master’s, you feel talented in this discipline, and you can see yourself working as a researcher for the rest of your life. Of course, you will have a chance to verify and change your plans later, but if you don’t really see yourself as a professional researcher from the very start, it’s better to skip the PhD and go straight to industry.

ACADEMIA VS OTHER OPTIONS

Academia, startup, corporation, public institution, or perhaps, your own company? First, there are no better or worse working environments — after all, every environment is built by people. What is important, is to find one environment where people have similar qualities, or values, to yours. To some people out there, the quality of life largely improves after moving to industry. Others were heavily disappointed with the industry life and are much better off in academia. Again, this is what you will most likely need to discover from your own experience, without blaming yourself for miscalibration in case you will need to change your working environment in the process.

Briefly, the major differences between academia and other working environments are as follows

(-) More idealists than elsewhere, yet the rules stay the same. Many academics are in deep love with science/knowledge, value the intellectual qualities higher than practical aspects of the job such as the salary and don’t use elbows while working with other people. Yet, the rules for getting promoted in academia are as harsh as everywhere else; if you don’t develop a thick skin and don’t start thinking strategically early on, it might result in deep disappointments and burnout down the line.

(-) You are on your own. This can be taboo in academia, but teams are only on paper because, at the end of the day, everyone needs to take care of their own CV. In fact, the way of incentivizing people in academic projects does not promote teamwork at all. Every single project results in a research paper and your place in the sequence of the authors on that paper determines how your scientific achievement is perceived by outsiders, including grant agencies who decide about your future in the field. As a result, academics have an incentive to get their name onto as many papers as possible while at the same time doing as little as possible for each one of the projects they participate in — as their publication record will be the major factor that the granting agencies take into account while dividing the money for future projects. Furthermore, since academics prioritize finishing projects in which they are the leading authors over other projects, they often delay their input to the projects in which they are supporting authors, and as a result, they successfully block them.

The situation is not any better when we look at the employer-employee relationship: unlike in industry, in academia bosses and their employees often have contradictory goals. Namely, your boss often wants you to exploit their own research ideas that they developed a long, long time ago and work on expanding their fame even further rather than working out your own future line of research. Typically, there is also less mobility in changing the boss as in many countries (such as the Netherlands), you are paid a salary straight from your lab’s budget and not from the department’s budget. In a way, this means that you belong to your boss. The situation is different in some countries such as the US where graduate schools offer fellowships. In such a setting, theoretically, you can change your lab affiliation within the same graduate school in the process, but it makes your life harder and is often perceived as a failure.

(-) You will not experience gratification on the daily basis. While in companies, employees usually need to accomplish several small tasks during the week, and they get some small personal gratifications for each one of them (often as little as a thumb up and smile, but that counts), academics need to develop sacred patience as the days of triumph are very scarce. One or twice a year you will publish something and celebrate, once or twice a year you will present at a conference. Other than that, research is a peaceful grind away from the world. So, you need to motivate yourself or find a peer group to support each other, or otherwise, your life will get very hard.

(-) Games. You can expect that once in a while, there will an extra author(s) on your paper even though they did nothing for the project only because some professor awes something to another professor because the project is a part of a consortium or so. In fact, there are lots of games you will have to tolerate to survive in academia but this is material for a whole book so let’s skip the details here.

(+/-) Unlike in other fields, in academia, you are often expected to have experience working abroad before you get a permanent academic contract. This might be good news or bad news depending on how much fond of traveling and relocating you are.

(+) You contribute to human heritage. This is also one of the very few places on the market where you are paid for learning (and for reporting the results from what you’ve learned in a form of research publications). If you have a natural curiosity and affinity to drill deep into problems and learning about them in every detail, this might be the place for you.

(+) You put your name on your work. This might sound like a detail, but for many academics switching to industry, it is disappointing that they are no longer recognized as authors of their work in public. When you are in academia, you put your own name on every single research paper, and then it becomes public and visible to everyone around the globe. In industry, on the other hand, the whole team produces a new product or a document under the brand of the company, and the public opinion doesn’t know what your exact input was. Of course, a good manager should make you feel very important for the team, yet still, your name won’t be mentioned in the history books even if you did something truly groundbreaking. So, if you need to be recognized for your work, academia is one of the few places where you are guaranteed to get this recognition.

(+) You are encouraged to share your know-how. As mentioned in the blog post, “Things learned in science, for the good and for the bad,” one of the things that can be hard after starting a company, is the realization that you no longer able to openly share your know-how. In the private sector, the company’s know-how is highly protected and everyone who will break the rules would likely be fired. Companies don’t organize international conferences so that everyone can share with representatives of other companies what they did in their projects in every detail. No one shares their pipelines so that their results can be reproduced. So, if sharing what you with the public opinion matters to you, academia is the environment to go for.

(+) If you successfully climb up the ladder, you have a chance to get a tenure position which basically means that you are getting a lifelong appointment and you won’t ever need to apply for a job again in your life. Only academics have this luxury.

HOW IS ACADEMIA STRUCTURED?

Many people outside academia believe that the academic path looks like this: PhD candidate —> Postdoc —> Professor. In fact, it is much more complicated than that, and to a large extent, it depends on the country, as the structure of the academic system is very different around the world. Typically, PhD graduates need to jump over many more hurdles than just one or two Postdoc positions on their way to land tenure. It’s a 10-15-or more years-long journey, and within this time, many extenuating circumstances can happen — for example, the equipment that you are working on can become obsolete which can affect your further career opportunities.

HOW CAN YOU PREPARE FOR A PHD?

There is a huge difference between landing a PhD contract and landing a good PhD contract. Two factors are crucial of course: (1) to land the topic that you find truly fascinating, (2) to get under the wings of a good supervisor and mentor. The second factor is usually even more important than the first, for a simple reason: even the best project will be spoiled by an incompetent or a sociopathic supervisor. Many Master’s students undervalue the importance of the supervisor in the project and go for interesting topics. This often backfires. To find the right supervisor, you will need to spend more time on networking, and visiting labs — but believe me, the effort will eventually pay off. And, if you ask the current and former students of a given professor about their experience from working together, it’s good to ask them for “3 good things versus one negative thing they can say about their boss“ — so that they can honestly share one downside of the person without feeling guilty for it. Furthermore, it’s important to keep in mind that a good PhD is also about the environment you work in, and not just your direct supervisor. It’s good to make sure that you will also have daily contact with someone assigned as your daily supervisor, and that you are going to be a member of a graduate school where more students like you complete their PhDs at the same time. Otherwise, you might feel very isolated and demotivated after a few months.

Furthermore, before you launch your academic career properly, you will need to have a plan. Academia is a complex environment because the currency in academia is double. While companies aim to just increase their profits, academics need to first produce papers to attract grants (in a way, also “profits”) later. And, it’s important to choose a topic that has a good potential to publish — or, a good potential to pivot if any major problems with the project emerge in the process. You know, even within one lab, one student might have a wonderful project from which they can produce multiple high-impact publications, while another student might have a project which can result in one paper at best, and the journals that might be interested in this type of material, have one order of magnitude lower impact factor. Choosing the right supervisor might be 50% of the overall success, and choosing the right project is another 30%. The work put into the projects, is only the remaining 20% of the success, unfortunately.

Many PhD candidates hear from their supervisors that the graduate school is “just a school” – namely, that they should not be fixated on publications because the main point of the PhD is to learn and produce a good quality work, and not to publish. Supervisors often say this because they believe that taking off the publication pressure from the students will make them more relaxed… and more likely to publish. Beware of this because if you buy into this rhetorics and won’t pay attention to publishing, then in your last year of the PhD you can expect that the rhetorics will drastically change, and that all of a sudden you will be bombed with questions about your current and future manuscripts. So, instead of listening to this advice early on, it’s better to assume from the start that you should care about publications, and make sure that your project has a good publishing potential. Assessing the potential of the research projects is very hard and requires many years of experience in the field. Many full professors are still poor at spotting good publication opportunities! Therefore, to approach this issue, it is advisable to come up with at least a few alternatives, and (1) checking in which types of journals the topics interesting to you tend to appear; (2) asking at least 3-5 researchers in the field for their opinion, preferably those who already have some experience (which means Postdoctoral researchers and senior researchers).

DURING THE PHD

PhD requires a lot of self-management skills. You will be put in the same pot with plenty of other young and ambitious people who will have similar career goals to yours — and in that sense, they will be your competition to some extent. Academia is very individualistic and puts a lot of pressure on productivity and personal branding. Self-management in academia is a big topic (and probably, a material for the whole new book), but you can find some tips here.

I’M NOT SURE I WANT TO BE A PROFESSOR, BUT I’D LIKE TO DO A PHD

In some areas of industry, it’s good to hold a PhD. For instance, Google is known for its preference to hire people with a PhD title. In case you think of a PhD solely as a way of advancing your position in the job market rather than as a start of your research career, you can think of a PhD in industry. In this scheme, you conduct your PhD directly in a company. The company proposes a topic and collaborates with some research institutions where you’ll get supervision for your project and eventually defend your thesis.

In this scheme, you will learn much more about industry from behind the curtains. However, you need to accept that the hosting company has an interest primarily in their projects and products, and not in your publications. Thus, if you enter a PhD program this way, your publication record will likely be worse than your colleagues’ record at the end of the program. This might effectively block you in case you change your mind in the process and wish to develop an academic career. If you are interested in here more insights from a person who went through this type of a PhD, please take a look at the interview with Dr. Alican Noyan, PhD who conducted his PhD program in Hewlett Packard.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?

And, what happens after your PhD? Well, unfortunately, most PhD graduates these days need to leave academia simply because there is not enough space for them. Many PhD candidates don’t really think about these statistics while starting their projects (and neither did I!) — they are in love with science, they plan to do science for a living, and don’t think about the odds. However, it’s a better option to thank about the alternatives from the start assuming that becoming a full professor is an unlikely scenario, and choose projects that guarantee the maximal number of transferrable skills. Sometimes, two different branches of the same field result in a drastic difference between career prospects for the graduates. For instance, if you study optical physics and build equipment to conduct new experiments, the engineering skills that you get will only be useful in the branches of industry where you can continue building similar setups — and that usually means no more than a few academic and industrial laboratories in the whole country. On the other hand, if you study medical physics, you will write software to perform signal analysis. With this competence, you can work in almost any company as a data scientist, a machine learning engineer, or an analytic. So, it’s wise to take this factor into account while choosing the scope of your PhD.

The last thing worth mentioning is that the job market changes very quickly; the landscape of options will likely be different at the point you will enter graduate school versus at the point you will come to the end of your PhD project. Therefore, rather than planning your career ten years ahead, it’s better to track the job market and be aware of the new trends and opportunities.

GOOD RESOURCES TO LOOK INTO

I can also recommend watching a 15-minute guidebook to the subject of choosing the right PhD project by Vera Chan (@verabschan), PhD, entitled, “PhD Application Advice – How to Choose the Right PhD Supervisor?“ In this movie, Vera explains the weight of this choice and its influence on your future research career and introduces major pitfalls that might block your career for good. Highly recommended watch!

Furthermore, Simon Clark (@simonoxfphys), PhD, wonderfully explained the importance and possible consequences of choosing to do a PhD in his movie, “Why you shouldn’t apply for a PhD“.

Plus, Prof. James Arvanitakis, the Dean of the Graduate Research School at the Western Sydney University gave a very interesting view from the perspective of grad school management in his movie, “5 Things To Think About Before Starting a PhD“.

CONCLUSION

Good luck with your decision — no matter what happens next, the longest journey of your life is starting now. What an exciting point in your life! If you have any questions, please drop them below!

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Please cite as:

Bielczyk, N. (2020, July 3rd). What you should know before starting a PhD. Retrieved from https://nataliabielczyk.com/what-you-should-know-before-starting-a-phd/

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If you would like to read more about careers (for PhDs and other white-collar professionals) and effective strategies to self-navigate in the job market, please also take a look at the blog of my company, Welcome Solutions where I write posts dedicated to these topics.

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