PhD tips

PhD Nonsense #1: “Don’t do a PhD!”

This is a new mini series featuring a some of the stupid, crappy things I’ve heard or been told throughout my PhD and my responses to them >>>

First up is this common bullshit thing I keep coming across, approximately several times a week. It goes something like this:

Someone asks a question like:
‘What advice would you have for someone starting a PhD?’
‘What’s the most valuable lesson you learnt from your PhD?’
‘What’s one thing you wish you knew before starting your PhD?’

And, I promise that this is always inevitably followed by a slew of snarky, pseudo-jokey responses from academics that basically come down to this:

Don’t do a PhD!

(This is usually accompanied by a knowing snigger; or, if communicated online, some variation of a grinning emoji)

THIS MAKES ME WILD WITH RAGE!

First, answers like this are completely unhelpful. If someone is asking that question, they are probably already on the way to doing a PhD. Telling them not to do it doesn’t help in any way.

Secondly, most of the people who say ‘don’t do a PhD’ don’t offer any follow-up context or explanation. Sure, perhaps for that person stating that answer, not doing a PhD was/is the best option. But making blanket statements like this doesn’t shed any sort of insight into why they’ve arrived at that conclusion or why it might be a useful solution for the person asking the question.

Offhandedly saying, ‘Don’t do a PhD’, followed by facetious sniggers, does nothing but intimidate newer students/researchers.

By not giving a proper explanation or contextualising the answer, it presumes some kind of insider knowledge or joke about ‘how terrible’ a PhD is. It reinforces this notion of academia being a closed club, the secrets (and struggles) of which, you will never understand if you’re outside it… which defeats the whole purpose of someone asking those questions to seek advice and answers in the first place.

Worse, it normalises and perpetuates the idea that a PhD is a terrible mistake / not valuable / sets people up for regret and struggle – which is not helpful nor accurate.
Sure, a PhD may not be everyone and it can be a struggle for some – but surely, then, the more helpful, useful thing would be to say that, and offer more information, experiences or insights for why that might be the case. Then let the aspiring PhD candidate decide whether or not to pursue it.

Making sweeping statements like, “Don’t do a PhD *haha guffaw chuckle*” is not only irresponsible and unhelpful; it’s a bad reflection of the person saying it. Because surely, as a researcher, the foundation of our work is to provide information, to educate and share, and help people gain the perspectives they need to make informed decisions. Not to obnoxiously show off that we know better without actually explaining HOW we know that.

I would never tell someone straight off the bat to not do a PhD, or to even suggest that doing it is some kind of mistake.

Instead:

If you’re wondering whether or not to do a PhD, or know of someone who’s thinking of it, I’d suggest spending some time reflecting on these questions / perspectives instead:

  • Why do you want to do a PhD? What are you hoping to gain from doing PhD study? What are your expectations of doing a PhD? What are you looking forward to in doing PhD research?
  • What do you think will be expected of you, and how do you feel about being able to meet those expectations?
  • What do you want to research and why is this important to you? Is this a subject that will sustain your interest and motivation across the 3-7 years it could take you to complete the degree?
  • What do you hope to do with the PhD after you finish? What will your PhD do for you? Do you really need a PhD to pursue your career goals? What else can you do, or are interested in doing if you didn’t do or have a PhD?
  • What concerns do you have about doing a PhD (if any)? Is there anything you feel would impede your progress? What would you anticipate being difficult or unchallenging? How confident are you about being able to face these challenges?
  • What qualities do you think you’re able to bring into doctoral research? What skills do you still need to learn, and how confident are you about being able to learn them at this stage in your life/career?

I also want to be clear about this: Doing a PhD IS hard work. It can definitely be challenging, demanding and difficult. It will push you beyond your comfort zone and sometimes involve a steep, intense learning curve.

A PhD is not for everyone, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s just one path and one career choice that you could take among many. It doesn’t mean it’s better or worse than anything else you might choose to do.

But, perhaps more importantly, doing a PhD can also be thoroughly rewarding. It can feel exceptionally joyful to spend a good number of years working on a subject that is valuable and dear to you. It can be fulfilling and satisfying to conduct research knowing that it can literally change the lives of people right now.

So, if you’re thinking of doing one, I’d really recommend spending a little extra time thinking about why you want to do it, the motivation, drive and passion behind it.

Spend some time working through your long-term goals during and after the PhD. You might become more certain than ever that research is what you want to do.

Or, you might realise that there are other avenues you can pursue that can lead you to those same goals, that would be better suited to your personal interests, personality, aims and working practices.

All these considerations and brainstormings are what will help you best determine whether a PhD is right for you, and get clear on what you will need to support your ultimate goals and career desires.

Please, for the love of all that is good about research, don’t base your decisions off a few arrogant unhelpful arseholes online who are simply saying, “Don’t do a PhD *guffaw guffaw snigger snigger*”.

And if you’re one of those idiots who do keep saying that: please STFU. (If you think that’s an unhelpful, shit thing of me to say to you, then recognise that that’s exactly how shit and helpful your ‘don’t do a PhD comments’ are to others too. We – the academic community and the rest of the world – have no time for negligent, irresponsible researchers like you.

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