Is a PhD For Me?
[This article originally appeared in Indonesia Mengglobal, a site where Indonesian students and alumni from US top schools such as Stanford, MIT, Harvard and UC Berkeley share their study-abroad tips and experience. Indonesia Mengglobal aspires to make high-quality global education more accessible for Indonesian students]
You may arrive at the junction of life nearing the end of your undergraduate or graduate study where you have to choose between doing a PhD or starting your career. If you decide to pursue a PhD, it had better be for the right reasons – and for the sake of getting more education is not the right reason, by the way. I hope this article can help to point out several things to consider before making your choice.
Are You Intellectually Curious?
Do you get excited when coming up with a brilliant original idea? Do you like to spend hours thinking about solutions to interesting social problems or creating little gadgets that make your life simpler? Or perhaps you want to better understand the forces of nature and why things come to be the way they are?
If this is true, a PhD study may be an enjoyable journey for you. Pursuing a PhD gives you the liberty to explore a topic that interests you.
Intellectual curiosity alone, however, may not suffice to ensure your success. You need to understand that you will be doing research on a very specific topic for a long period of time. You need to have patience and perseverance to carry on with your research even when unexpected things happen. A good way to gauge your interest is to take part in some research activities in your undergraduate institution. In many ways, this experience will give you a taste of how research is like and allow you to judge how much you enjoy it.
PhD Is Different
A bachelor or masters education is inherently different from a PhD education. In the former, you go to classes and learn from the accumulated knowledge that is already proven to work. In the latter, you spend most of your time putting your hypotheses to test through field investigation, laboratory work, or numerical simulations.
A PhD study, therefore, does not constitute learning in the traditional sense. It is not a natural next step in your education. Instead of learning from textbooks, you are breaking new grounds and coming up with new ideas and technologies. You learn to be independent and creative, to let your ideas run wild and to take full charge of your progress. You hold the key to your own success.
It’s Not About the Money
If you decide to pursue PhD solely because of the potential for higher earnings, you are in for a let-down. Although it is true that the starting salaries of graduates with PhD degrees are higher on average than the salaries of those with lower levels of education, this premium does not commensurate with the number of years you spend obtaining the degree. If financial gain is your priority, you are better off working after your bachelor’s or masters’ degree as the years of experience will earn you a higher lifetime income.
Note, however, that you can always find exceptions to this. Certain companies, especially those at the forefront of technology, will readily pay higher salaries to PhD graduates.
Can You Handle Failure?
Failure is inevitable in research. You can think of it as a high-risk endeavor. It takes many failed attempts to finally succeed. You are among the many researchers who go in different directions to push the boundary of research in your academic discipline. Ultimately, only a handful will survive and prove to be superior to others. Even these will eventually be replaced with newer and better ideas in the future as the boundary gets pushed further. In a bigger scheme of things, your contribution may be relatively small and insignificant. You need to be ready to accept that the ideas you have been working on for years may be a flop and have the resolve to simply move on with your research.
Know Your Options
Don’t go into a PhD study blindly. You may be lucky to find that it matches your expectation, but chances are you will be disappointed. As mentioned before, you learn differently in a PhD study than in other levels of education.
A PhD study will prepare you for a career in research or academia. If this is what you want to do after your study, you are in the right place. If you want to work in the industry instead, you should explore all the options available to you. Companies that you previously planned to work with may not appreciate your PhD degree after all.
You need to understand that what is important in job search is the skill you obtain from your study. A company will look at what you have to offer and will only hire you if you have what it needs. Companies whose practices rely on established body of knowledge may not fully appreciate the skill set that you bring in. On the other hand, companies that value creativity and resourcefulness may find your PhD training vital to their success. It is therefore important to know which doors will open and which ones will shut before you start your PhD career.
All in all, my advice is to know what you are getting yourself into. A PhD study is going to take five or more years and this length of time is not to be taken lightly. Given that you will primarily develop skills pertaining to research, you need to consider whether it is what you want to do in the long term.
That said, I welcome any comments you have or about your personal experience if you have started this journey. I hope you have enjoyed this article and get something out of it.
Martin Tjioe is a PhD student in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at Stanford University. Originally from Medan, he went to Lafayette College for his undergraduate study. Martin is passionate about helping talented students obtain the quality education they deserve.
[Photo via Day Job]