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.
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.
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.
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.