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PhD’s – An easy alternative to getting a job?

PhD’s used to be considered a strenuous, almost tortuous process, in which only the very brightest minds could possibly survive. Only those who had ideas of going into academia and wanting to achieve the very highest reaches of their fields dare venture in.

Are graduates choosing PhD's as an easy option to avoid looking for a job?
Are graduates choosing PhD’s as an easy option to avoid looking for a job?

Today however, it feels as though doing a PhD has become an acceptable title for those who “wanted to be a student forever” or “can’t get a real job”. Whilst there is still a sense that to do a PhD, you must be a relatively smart cookie, there is an unfortunate stigma which has attached itself to the term and makes people who “work in the real world” doubt that the level of work put into a PhD is anything near the effort that an actual job entails.

I’m not going to start complaining here that everyone should stop giving a hard time to those that undertake a PhD. My issue is that undergraduates are hearing this, and think that a PhD is a way of postponing having to find a job where they will work long hours and instead means they get to travel the world going to conferences in exotic places whilst paying no tax on their income.

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A PhD isn’t all about conferences in Hawaii and being a partying student…

PhD’s are not that. Full time PhD’s may have some more flexibility with when they do work, but they will still be doing 40 hour weeks, and when deadlines, monitoring meetings and thesis writing come around, that can easily extend to 60 – 70 over 7 days a week. Most supervisors will have regular weekly or bi-weekly meetings to ensure that you aren’t being left behind, and by the time you get past the halfway mark, it will be you calling the shots about nearly everything. You might not pay tax on your stipend, but it isn’t exactly going to bankroll the lifestyle you have in mind for yourself, and you’re certainly not going to be saving much towards anything.

Yes, depending on the funding available, there is a good chance that at some point you’ll go to a conference which is abroad. But anything that isn’t strictly related to your work whilst out there isn’t going to be covered by the funding. And most evenings, you’ll be busy networking at events, rather than off exploring the nightlife. Your chances of a post graduate job are diminished significantly if you turn up to Day 2 of an international conference obviously hungover and tired.

The “cushy” lifestyle that is portrayed for PhD students could explain why the completion rate for PhD’s within 7 years in the UK is only 72%, and in America, where gaining a PhD is even more of a test of stamina, that figure is significantly lower, often below 50%. Whilst many people are unable to complete a PhD for a variety of reasons, the harsh realities of what doing a PhD entails often cause a significant number of these.

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A PhD is like a marriage. And by the end, your thesis will be as precious to you as your real-life other half

When asked what it’s like to do a PhD by those on University open days, or interview days, the questions very rarely ask what a PhD gives them, or what it means for job prospects afterwards. Most ask about the money available, what it’s like working independently in an office, and, in one case, what areas of research are most likely to have the best conferences in the best places. And those are the wrong questions to be asking if you’re thinking of doing a PhD.

Your PhD won’t be your finest work in your career and it’s exceptionally unlikely that your PhD thesis will be a best seller, or win you a Nobel prize. The work you do is likely to be something that only a handful of people worldwide will ever read and/or understand.

In short, a PhD is essentially a 3-5 year apprenticeship at a highly demanding research facility. You’re being shaped into a researcher, which is something that isn’t taught at undergraduate or even master’s level. The skillset you develop during a PhD will serve you for life much more than the actual content of the work you do. Yes, there are perks, and it will be fun at times. And 10% off at Co-op is very nice when you’re trying to watch the pennies. BUT it isn’t something that should be rushed into and certainly not something that is an easy option when you can’t be bothered to find a “real” job.

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Uncertainty is an uncomfortable position. But certainty is an absurd one

So, for the first views post, I thought I’d go with something that most people will have seen. Over the weekend, you may well have seen an article in the Daily Express about the British winter. It’s the third such article in the last month, starting with one claiming that Britain will have the coldest and snowiest winter in 50 years, due to a strong El Nino in the Pacific Ocean. We’ll ignore the science at the moment, but if you want more information on the link between UK weather and El Nino, the Met Office Blog has a helpful article.

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Now, it is important I put this here first: I am not going to say this is/is not going to happen. Partially this is because I am not a forecaster, despite what my family may think, but also, because there is a chance it may happen. And the word chance is the key one.

The Daily Express’s first of many weather stories of 2015. In the last month, 3 other stories with similar headlines have been in the paper.

Numerical Weather Prediction models have the ability to accurately forecast, at most, about a few days in advance. These are run at higher resolution and in doing so, can compute the smaller effects that affect where rain will fall, where winds will be strongest and where clouds will form more accurately. Climate models, which run with lower resolution, typically are used to run months/years into the future. Often this work is used for academic research and not released as a public announcement, but in academic papers.

When NWP’s are run, they are run several times with very small perturbations in the initial conditions. Due to the Butterfly Effect, these cause a divergence in the forecasts which grows over time. After a few days, the simulations will differ from each other significantly. What it leaves for the couple of days ahead is a probabilistic forecast, where they have a range of possibilities for what the weather will do, but also a sense of the probability of how likely each option is.

ensemble_membersA set of ECMWF ensemble simulations showing the differences in attempting to track a the formation of a storm in the Mid Atlantic. (Source – Dr Ryan Maue, ECMWF)

The same is done with lower resolution models for further into the future. This can give a general probability of less specific statements. Normally these are used with the words “most probable scenario is a drier than average/warmer than average/windier than average” guise. And that’s it. That’s all they can say.

More and more often, forecasts are now given with a probability, and the BBC have started to include more about these uncertainties in their forecasts. The forecast of a storm which didn’t hit a couple of weeks ago was predicted almost a week in advance, but up until 2 days before there was still uncertainty with where it would make landfall. And the BBC actually showed this in the forecasts. Some other weather companies around the world have included some elements of uncertainty for a while now.

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NOAA have been representing uncertainty on storms for a number of years now.

The issue I have with the Daily Express headline is that it shows no uncertainty. The general public read it, take it as truth, and then when it doesn’t happen, blame the weatherman. It’s something that is becoming more and more infuriating for meteorologists and climate scientists all over the world. Maybe it’s the scientists fault for not focusing on the uncertainty and attempting to make a result seem more certain, more important. Or maybe it’s the media’s manipulation of the message to sell more papers and gain more clicks online.
The media’s relationship with weather and climate is another story for another day. But it is certainly worth remembering that the Daily Express led with the headline “Winter 2014 set to be coldest for a century” last year, and went with “Britain facing worst winter in 60 years” in 2013. And predicted a coldest winter in 100 years in 2012 too. And 2011. And 2010