Questions You Should Answer Before Starting A PhD

Photo by Logan Isbell on Unsplash

This post is dedicated to all of you who are thinking about starting a PhD. If you have ever applied for a job, you would probably know that you are expected to do your homework to maximize your opportunities before applying. If you’re considering applying for a PhD this is exactly the same case.

You can easily find good posts and books about how to maximize your opportunities when applying for a job. Unfortunately, numbers are much more humble when we refer to PhDs. The percentage of people applying for a PhD is much smaller, therefore we can expect a limited amount of references. During these years, I have realized that those applicants for PhD positions do not understand the idiosyncrasy of research, what a PhD is, how funding works, and other basic words in the PhD vocabulary.

It is surprising the lack of information about the PhD career in may universities. Potential candidates jump into this adventure simply because they have good vibes about research, or an ideal vision of PhDs. If you ask yourself many questions when buying a car (the engine, the fuel consumption, the guarantee, etc.), why don’t you ask yourself any question in something that may take five years of your life? There is an aura of mysticism that prevents academia from openly discussing the pros and cons of the first years in the career of a researcher.

A PhD differs from a regular job in many aspects. For example, independently of the complexity and experience required, PhD’s wages are minimal. Have you ever heard that PhD candidates suffer from mental disorders such as depression or even suicidal tendencies? What goes after a PhD? In your industry will a PhD boost your career? Yes? No? How can you recognize a good advisor? Have you ever thought about these issues? Probably not.

A PhD is like a roller coaster. After the ride some people clap and ask for more. Other people ask themselves why did they jump on. I do not want to discourage anybody from pursuing a PhD. Nevertheless, asking yourself the correct questions and doing some initial investigation will save you time, effort, and problems. The following is a list of questions/ideas you should explore before deciding whether a PhD is for you or not. I have classified them into five sections to be easily digested:

  • Downsides nobody explains to you
  • Your advisor
  • The research group
  • The topic
  • Funding

Consider the downsides nobody explains to you

Photo by Kenny Eliason on Unsplash

These are some of the things you discover during your PhD that nobody openly talks about.

  • PhD candidates are poorly paid. That’s a fact. During your PhD days, you are considered to be a student/candidate. This implies (with some exceptions) that you will get a basic salary. It doesn’t matter how complex your topic is, or how many hours you dedicate to it. When compared to your colleagues working for the industry you may easily find that you are earning two or three times less.
  • Your PhD will be your family. Somehow getting a PhD becomes a lifestyle. Huge dedication, traveling, workshops, symposiums, teaching… Do not expect to have spare time for certain “adult life adventures” such as having your own family. I have met people who managed to finish their PhDs and raise children. I am conscious of the humongous effort they did and how their PhD, family life, and quality of life was impacted.
  • Mental health. This topic is gaining the relevance it deserves. Mental disorders are common among PhD candidates. You can extend this to academics. The levels of stress, the long working hours, and continuous uncertainty are the perfect mix to dismantle your sanity. Holding a diploma is not necessarily good if your health is in ruins. If you are under treatment do not hesitate to query your specialist before starting this adventure.
  • A PhD may not boost your career. Holding a PhD will not guarantee you a better position or salary. I’m sorry. It can be a plus depending on your area, your expertise, and what are employers looking for. However, let me tell you that in some scenarios PhDs are even not well-considered. Why? Because outside academia those extra years you spent at the university to end up applying for a “regular” job are considered a distraction in your CV. This is not always the case but somebody could indeed have used those years to gain more practical experience. This is something that can be discussed but it is a common thought.
  • There are more PhD graduates than positions in Academia. If you dream of being a professor at the university let me tell you something: that is improbable. Maths do not lie here. Universities are generating PhD graduates at a speed never seen before. Just to give you some numbers in 2014 only in the US 67,449 people graduated with a PhD (here).

Your advisor

Photo by Immo Wegmann on Unsplash

Your advisor will be the main authority who has to guide you in the darkness of your PhD adventure. I do not exaggerate when I say that finding a good advisor will make the difference between an enjoyable journey and a descent to the seventh circle of hell. Just google around about what people think about their advisors.

You will end up having an emotional link with your advisor. We know that emotions are unpredictable. That lovely person who was genuinely interested in your ideas may end up being the person you hate the most. However, from a more practical perspective, there are some items you may want to check.

  • List of publications. I know you are probably new to the world of research but this is the most basic indicator of how proficient is a researcher. Google your potential advisor or directly search him in Google Research. Does he have papers? How many? Do the titles contain some of the topics you would like to explore? Is he the main author or not?
  • The resume. I do not expect you to understand all the different publications, books, awards, fundings, and who-knows-what-other entries the resume of a full professor can have. Not always the larger the resume, the better it is. You can check other things. For example, has this person collaborated with other universities or has he developed his entire career in the same place? Does he get funding from companies or the administration? Does he teach any courses? How many? Is he on the program committee of any conference? Maybe in an editorial board? The more open-minded and experienced is your advisor, the better help you can get from him.
  • The position. Depending on the country and university, professors have to go through different positions before getting a permanent one. And then, there are several types of permanent positions. We can expect from a full professor a dilated career, plenty of experience, a clear understanding of the state of the art, knowing the names of the important people in the area, hundreds of papers, etc. Unfortunately, full professors can be overloaded with bureaucracy, and spend a lot of time looking for funding, projects, and other staff. If that is the case, your advisor will be the person you need to sign some of your documents rather than a person you can share your research with. There is a big difference between an absent advisor and somebody with a genuine interest in what you do. On the other side, junior advisors who are struggling to get a permanent or more senior position may show a more genuine interest in your PhD. Why? Because they need to accumulate more merits to step up in the hierarchy. Think that for these researchers you are more a collaborator rather than a simple student. It is true that junior researchers try to accumulate as many PhD students as possible to grow their list of publications at the cost of the students. On the other hand, I have seen senior researchers working hand in hand with their students. As you can see the position of your advisor may not have a direct impact on your PhD experience. A full professor can facilitate your access to resources and may extend your connections to other universities. However, you can be easily ignored. As explained before, a more junior researcher can be more helpful but will have more difficulties in terms of funding and other resources. You must figure out what would fit the best for you. But in both cases, there is something you must know: how long will your advisor be in that university? Depending on their positions, contracts, and other issues they may not be in the same place before you get your title. And that would be a real problem.
  • Former students. A good indicator of a good PhD advisor is his former students. Take a look at those who got a PhD under his supervision. Did they publish in relevant journals or conferences? Are they professors or have positions in places you find interesting? How many people has he supervised so far? Maybe you can send them a message and kindly ask him about his experience.

The research group

Photo by Mario Purisic on Unsplash

During your PhD, you will be part of a larger research group. Finding a research group is not only about finding a group of individuals publishing amazing papers that move forward the borders of science. There is a lot about the internal dynamics of the group, the happiness of the researchers, and the interactions between them. You have to think that a research group will not only give you a bunch of workmates. You are going to spend a wild number of hours with them working in the lab, attending seminars, writing papers, going to workshops, traveling to conferences, etc. It is important to take a look at the researchers in the team you are considering joining. Almost every research group owns a web page with plenty of information you can check.

  • The people in the group. How many researchers are in the group? How many are PhD candidates? How many are full professors? How many are postdocs? How long do people stay in that group? Do they only stay for their PhD and then leave? Do they continue with postdocs? Are they from different countries? Some research groups tend to gather researchers of the same nationality this could be an issue for you.
  • The ratio of PhD candidates per researcher. This is a particularly important factor. You have to consider that if you divide the number of PhD candidates by the number of researchers that can supervise them and you get a large number, this means that PhD candidates do not get the attention they deserve. In some countries, this ratio is regulated to avoid “PhD farming”.
  • Funding. It is important to understand where the funding comes from. Universities do normally have their resources and open positions using their own money. Generally, this is not enough for the number of positions research groups aspire to open. Is here where funding becomes important for you as a PhD candidate. When a group receives funding for a project, state grant, or other sources they announce it. Check if this is the case, and how many funding sources you can find. The more diverse the sources, the better for the team.
  • Former members. What happened to the former members? Did they go to places you would like to be? Are they in other universities? You can do some research and decide if you like what you see. As a side note, I just found my former INRIA website and I can still see my name in the Cambridge Systems Research Group :D

The topic

Photo by Mika Baumeister on Unsplash

During a PhD, you will have the opportunity to explore different ideas regarding a certain topic. Some of these ideas may become interesting, relevant or even successful. However, you will have to discard thousands of these ideas. This means that you will work iteratively on the same topic over and over again. Sometimes you may wonder if somebody cares about all these ideas, or if it is worth the effort.

You must be aware that a PhD is the first step in a research career. Most of the ideas explored are contributions to a broader topic rather than ground-breaking discoveries. And many of those ideas may simply go stale over time, especially in STEM-related fields. You must love the topic. Purely. Your determination to spend time exploring ideas, reading about new findings, and commitment with the topic must be guaranteed even before starting. If you are not sure about a topic proposed to work on, take your time and discuss potential alternatives. Put your ideas on the table and evaluate if you like what you see.

Funding

Photo by Josh Appel on Unsplash

This is not a petty matter. I have already mentioned that PhD candidates are not well-paid. Putting this aside, you must consider where is your funding coming from. Is the university paying your salary? For how long do you have funding? Three? Four years? What happens if you do not finish on time? I know cases that after four years of full funding had to survive on tuition fees and freelance jobs. In other cases, you renew your contract year after year. If that is the case, be careful to be funded by a solvent entity. You would not be the first one with a funder gone bankrupt in the middle of your research.

About the salary. Is that money enough for a living? Some universities (especially the top ones) are located in non-affordable cities with overpriced rentals. Get familiar with the quality of life you may have according to your salary, especially if you are planning to land on a different country. Make numbers. Is that OK with your lifestyle?

Summary

Getting a PhD is a long journey. If you are considering applying for a PhD position, I think these are some of the questions you must answer before taking this decision. Do not be dazzled by the aura of academia and the promises of joining an elite of highly talented minds. A PhD requires sacrifices not everybody is willing to take, independently of their intellectual skills, high marks, or brilliant ideas. Take your time, do your homework, and decide if this adventure is for you. If not, there is a million itineraries you can follow. If so, enjoy the ride :)

Thanks for reading.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Juan M. Tirado

Juan M. Tirado

I help people to create data-based solutions | jmtirado.net | I wrote Build Systems with Go: amazon.com/dp/B091FX4CZX |