Students who apply to PhD positions are sometimes overenthusiastic and tend to have an idealized image of the degree course. Yes, furthering your knowledge and expertise with a doctoral degree is fantastic, but you first need to figure out if you are really suited to complete a PhD and moreover, you need to find the right PhD programme for you.
Take the example of Julio Peironcely, a PhD graduate: He really liked the research project he did during his MSc. He enjoyed designing algorithms and computer methods to tackle challenges in biology and the whole intellectual process. He thought of it as a fun experience to be around those smarter guys. So he though the logical step was to do the same on a bigger scale, a PhD, as it was the same but four years longer. He was going to get paid for doing research, so what could be greater than that?
Set the right expectations for your PhD
If you ask most prospective PhD candidates what they think a PhD is, they will answer it has something to do with research work for about four years, going deeper in your curiosity about a topic and mostly, about loving science. These are some of the best parts of a PhD, the parts that you hear during any interview for a PhD position. However, a doctoral degree involves a lot more, as it implies a way of working for which you need to prepare. It’s important you set the right expectations so you are not unpleasantly surprised.
So first, ask yourself the following five questions to find out if a PhD is a good fit for you.
1. Can you handle the uncertainty of a PhD?
In a PhD, especially at the beginning, you don't know for sure where you are going, or the exact outcome of your research. Yes, you have decided for a topic and have a part of the project description, but no clue how to turn it into a PhD thesis. In a word, you will have to handle a significant amount of uncertainty, and many times, it won’t be so easy to deal with.
Any doctoral programme teaches you the valuable lesson to focus on little but constant progress. The results of a PhD won’t come in an instant so you have to learn to get your joy from the little steps. When it comes to doctoral programmes, patience is a virtue, and the final reward is worth waiting for!
Another side to uncertainty is that these little steps may lead you nowhere. You need to develop the instinct to know when to change course or when to keep walking a bit longer. No need to worry! You will learn to do the right thing in time, and by sometimes making mistakes along the way. The important thing is to not give up and to keep in mind the motivation that led you to applying for a PhD in the first place.
2. Can you work independently?
A PhD will train you to work independently and if this may come as an easy task for some students, for others, it may come as an unexpected surprise. If you’re a social person and choose a multidisciplinary PhD (where other PhDs and postdocs are involved), connect your projects and work closely together, you think this could help you and you won’t have to deal with being an independent learner any longer. The truth is, even in the multidisciplinary PhDs, you will have to work independently most of the time.
What does independent work during a PhD mean? Well, you will have your supervisor that will guide you through your thesis, but for most of your work, you will have to come up with your own ideas and fix problems by yourself. A supervisor will mostly assist you with choosing problems, telling you how to plan an approach and can sometimes provide you a list of contacts that can help you advance your work.
You are entirely responsible and accountable for your research project, but you can think of it this way: you will be your own manager and handle all the big decisions.
3. Can you bring out the essence from large amounts of information?
A PhD programme requires reading many papers, learning many things and these need to be done fast.
Let’s say a common paper has six to ten pages. At the start of your PhD, you will read a paper from beginning to end, and you will probably need to read it two or three times more to completely understand it. However, you can’t afford spending so much time, reading hundreds of papers four times. You need to figure out fast if a paper is worth reading, how much it is relevant for your thesis and if it is original. Think of all of these while you’re skimming over a paper, but in order to do that, you will need to read a lot.
For this reason and to practice the skill of extracting useful information, start preparing and read as many papers as soon as you can. This will be a good exercise that will help you save a lot of time while you work for your PhD thesis
4. Can you accept criticism?
Many people, including your supervisor, will have negative remarks regarding your research. In some cases, if you’ll have to give a talk at a conference or in front of your research group, professors will crush you with questions. Although it may be hard, you need to take it positively and learn from what all people have to say.
All PhD students have to go through this process so you should not believe that you failed in any way. Listen to all critics, negative and positive feedback and use all of them to improve your research. Sometimes the feedback will sound plain mean, and some will be, but you need to recognize good feedback, tolerate it and try to make the most of it.
5. Can you stay motivated when the going gets tough?
The key to succeed in a PhD is to stay motivated. Being a good scientist is secondary.
As you have seen, a PhD is filled with loneliness, challenges, uncertainty, hard work and delayed gratification. You will be tempted to quit many times, so if you want to successfully complete your PhD programme, you have to stay motivated.
Each student has his/her own reason for doing a PhD, and each reason is equally valid and important. Ideally, you should start your research work for a PhD with a personally satisfying reason to make sure the satisfaction level of your motivation won’t go down. If you’re using a doctoral degree to help you land a career you’ve always dreamed of, focus on progress, as the ultimate achievement will eventually come.
Ask yourself “Am I closer to my goal than yesterday?” rather than “Did I meet my goal?”. A PhD is a roller-coaster, full of ups and downs. Yes, there are plenty of ups, and most of the times they compensate the downs.