So you want to do a PhD?

That’s great. Perhaps you would be interested in me supervising you? If so, you have impeccable taste. In any event let’s talk some more. Being paid to spend several years researching something in today’s economic environment is an amazing opportunity. Competition for PhD places can be incredibly fierce. If you are successful and not only get a position but a fully funded position then congratulations! I’m going to assume that you want to do a PhD in order to end up working in academia. If not then some/most of the following will not be of relevance, but perhaps still of interest. And most importantly, I’m going to assume that notwithstanding what I just said, you are well aware of the arguments for why doing a PhD isn’t a very good idea at all. You’re not? Ah.

This is a good start. And here is something more recent.

Even if you haven’t read such articles, then I think I’m safe in assuming that you’re not doing this for the money right? There is data that shows people with a PhD earn more than those with a bachelor’s degree, but when you think of how much additional time (whilst earning a student wage) a PhD requires, then comparisons between Jack who entered the world of work after graduating and Jill who got her first job after being awarded her doctorate, things start to look a little less attractive.

And am I safe in assuming that you’re not doing this for job security? After being awarded your hard won PhD your first job will almost certainly be as a postdoctoral researcher. A ‘postdoc’. This will last anywhere from one to four years, after which you will need to find another one. And then another. The chances of getting  subsequent postdocs at the same place are pretty slim so you will be relocating to another city. Perhaps another country. That may actually sound pretty cool and it can be. I spent some time living in Berlin. Fantastic city. Uprooting a family, long distance relationships, periods of unemployment, culture shock, loneliness, stress of having short-term contracts and the continual pressure to find work. Not so great.

The much coveted prize in academia is tenure (in the US system) or a permanent academic position (in the UK system). Essentially a job for life. Or at least until the next Vice Chancellor decides to axe department X. You’re not a chemist are you? Phew. Tenure is a very large carrot to be dangled in front of early career academics in the US system. And the size of the pole from which this carrot dangles appears to be getting longer and longer with fewer and fewer dragging themselves across the tenure line. At least in the UK system there is the feeling that if you keep your head down and have productive postdocs then a permanent position isn’t too unrealistic a proposition. The prospects of a permanent job in Germany look very limited by comparison.

OK, the short to medium term outlook isn’t too great. But these aren’t unsurmountable obstacles. Even I managed it after all! But what about the PhD itself? Things can vary a lot here. If I do end up as your supervisor then you can relax. Take the rest of the day off and bask in the knowledge that a few years of fulfilling and enriching research at the very cutting edge of human enquiry awaits you. If alas you will be supervised by someone else, then you need to appreciate the spectrum of PhDs. It’s all very complicated I’m sure, but I see it as a single dimensional system: a straight line. The horizontal axis is ‘freedom’.  Freedom from your supervisor telling you what to do. On the left had side is ‘complete freedom’: you enrol on a PhD program with the only requirement being that after three years (or so) you hand in a doctoral thesis. On the right hand side is ‘no freedom’: you enrol on a PhD program that is entirely specified by the supervisor, often as part of a larger project in which your job is to design/build/formulate/test/conceive element X and your thesis will document your research within this context.

How do these two extremes make you feel? Probably neither make you feel very comfortable, so let’s move both a little both towards the centre. Some people can still have pretty strong reactions at this point. The idea of being told what to research in any meaningful sense feels terribly restrictive and constraining. What’s the point of doing doctoral research? For others, the prospect of significant periods of being left to their own devices, staring at a blank piece of paper, lost, drifting is very worrying. How can I do any research with no context?

There is no one size fits all PhD and the quality of your research, not to mention the quality of your life will be strongly determined by where you see yourself on this line and where you think your research needs to be conducted. Regardless of that however, there is one feature that I think is pretty much invariant. It doesn’t matter what you research, where you do it or with who. You have to want to do. Really want to. Because there will be periods when you won’t feel like doing it. Maybe you’ve gotten lost in the undergrowth and lost sight of where you were heading. Maybe you’ve run into another dead end. A dead end that took weeks or even months to travel down. Time all wasted. Maybe after stumbling upon a conclusion, you surface, blinking into the light, run into the common room with sheafs of crumpled note-crammed paper held triumphantly aloft and are met with silence. Or laughter. Or pity.

I once spent two weeks trying to understand the output of a computer simulation until I realised that I had a plus instead of a minus in the code. Two weeks. I spent months trying to develop something when one afternoon I suddenly realised it was completely and utterly wrong. Months.

But before all of that, years before in fact, I picked up a book and had something of an epiphany. I re-read The Philosophy of Artificial Life and I suddenly realised that this is what I wanted to do. I wanted to spend my time (not all of it, but an appreciable amount) thinking about these questions: What is life? How did life emerge?  How did inteligence and consciousness emerge? Is there life elsewhere in the universe? How has life affected the Earth? How do humans affect the Earth? The time between reading that book and getting a permanent lectureship was a little under 10 years. One reason it took so long was that I needed to teach myself quite a few things in order to be able to even apply for a PhD position. I’m going to assume that you are in a much more sensible situation. But even then you will at times be faced with a learning curve so steep it appears as a slab of vertical rock.

So you want to do a PhD. That’s great. But do you really want to do it? Do you find it hard to get these ideas out of your head? Do you lay awake in bed at night struggling with understanding something. Are you struck with how awesome certain things or theories are? How beautiful they are? Do you feel almost a little love sick when thinking about certain concepts? Can you unsettle people sometimes by getting this glazed look in your eyes? Are you prone to wandering off mid sentence, distracted so that you never… finish… what…

If so, then do it. Very few things will matter as much to you. And if we assume these other things are people and these people care as much about you as you do about them then they will be happy companions on your journey. Good luck!

2 thoughts on “So you want to do a PhD?

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