Should you get a PhD?

When I asked my undergraduate advisor for a recommendation letter to PhD programs, he replied, with genuine surprise, “Why do you want to get a PhD?” I was too stunned by his question to ask him to elaborate. In my mind, why wouldn’t you get a PhD? You get to learn more about what you’re interested in, you usually get enough money to support yourself, and aren’t more educated people more employable in general?  

Since then, I have come to appreciate my advisor’s reluctance to unequivocally endorse PhDs. (For the record, I don’t think his reaction had anything to do with his opinion of me – he did write me a letter. Also for the record, I do not regret getting a PhD!). “A PhD is an expensive degree” is something I cannot say often enough. Yes, usually you do not pay for the degree directly, but the earnings and quality of life you give up for 4-6+ years are similarly important costs to consider. With that, here are important questions to ask yourself before enrolling in a PhD program.

1) Do you like doing research in the field you are considering? Most PhD programs are geared toward training researchers. And academic research is very different from research you may have done in a class. Class research projects are doable and have an easily identifiable end (aka the due date). Academic research can be incredibly fulfilling because you get to be at the frontier of knowledge. But it is also unpredictable, uncertain, and (usually) involves unforeseen and frustrating setbacks. In the course of a research project, you may discover something incredible or you may end up discarding months of hard work and starting over.

An important emphasis here is on “doing research”. I love reading about new discoveries in genetics and wanted to be a researcher in genetics when I was in high school. But then I learned more about how research in genetics is conducted and realized that being a consumer of research and a producer of research are two very different things. That example also highlights that just because you do not enjoy research in one discipline does not mean that there isn’t another discipline out there for you.

The best way to figure out if you like academic research is to work as a research/lab assistant for a professor or scientist. You will probably end up doing bottom-of-the-barrel work, but you will observe and experience how the process works, which will give you a pretty good idea of whether research is for you.

How do you find research opportunities? Your undergraduate institution may have formal programs. But it’s also perfectly fine to email professors directly and ask if they have research opportunities. You may not get a ton of responses, but you only need one. Looking for a full-time research assistant position is another good option. Finally, you can try research yourself by writing a senior thesis or independent study under the supervision of a professor.

2) How much will your career depend on successfully getting grants? I was happily oblivious to the fact that many academics’ careers live and die by whether they successfully raise money to support their research and their students. Luckily for me, in economics fundraising is optional. But in many other disciplines, applying for grants is an incredibly important part of a researcher’s career. Constantly trying to get new grants to keep your research agenda and students funded can be very stressful. Knowing what kind of funding pressures you might face is important information to incorporate into your decision.

3) What would you do if you didn’t get a PhD and where would that get you in 4-6 years? I always ask students who want to apply to a PhD program why they want a PhD (not with the surprised tone my undergrad advisor used though). About half the time, the answer makes it clear that the biggest reason is that they aren’t sure what to do next, so getting more education seems like a safe fallback option. If that describes you, spend some time researching other career options. And don’t just consider what entry-level jobs you could get instead of a PhD. Remember, a PhD is a big time commitment, so you should be comparing getting a PhD to spending 4-6 years working. Often, those years of work experience can get you far, both financially and in terms of doing interesting work.

4) How difficult is it to get a faculty/researcher position after the PhD program? If you have tried research and loved it and are satisfied with the grant funding situation in your chosen field, there’s still the harsh reality that, in many disciplines, only a small fraction of PhDs end up getting academic/researcher positions. Quite a few end up working in positions that are only tangentially related (Data Science and Finance are popular destination for math and physics PhDs).

The answer to this question obviously varies by institution, and there are no programs that can guarantee a research-based job after. If whether or not you get a PhD hinges on the answer to this question, I suggest applying, seeing where you get in, and then asking those programs about their placement records. If you don’t get into a program with a placement record that satisfies you, working for a year or two, beefing up your credentials, and trying again may be a good option.

I don’t mean to sound too negative about PhD programs. For many, including myself, the intellectual satisfaction of research and the ability to set your own course more than offsets the costs of a PhD program. But I think the world would be a better place if most prospective PhDs knew what exactly they were getting themselves into!

How to be a productive researcher

We are taught a lot of research skills in grad school. But a lot of these are specific technical skills. Little attention is devoted to the question of how to be a productive researcher. This “meta-skill” is usually learned the hard way through trial and error or, in the best-case scenario, through others’ advice. Here are my two cents on what works.

  1. Treat the research process as a skill you have to learn and maintain. No one is born knowing how to take a project from an idea to a published paper; some people just figure it out more quickly than others. And the more you practice, the easier it gets. Having the right attitude about this process can help you calibrate expectations and muster willingness to persevere.
  2. Protect your research time. Figure out when you work best (e.g., mornings or evenings) and minimize other commitments during those times. In my calendar, 8am-11am is marked as “research time” every single weekday. That reminds me not to schedule other things during that time. To avoid having to respond to requests with “I’m sorry, that time doesn’t work for me, I’ll be sitting in my office doing research,” I will often take the first step in suggesting an afternoon meeting time. This doesn’t always work – for example, I taught 9:30-11am Tue/Thu last semester and some morning meetings are unavoidable – but it greatly improves my productivity overall. Remember, the fact that your plan to do research at a particular time does not involve another person does not mean that it is not a “real” commitment. In fact, your job (mostly) depends on it.
  3. Invest in your writing skills. Writing used to be difficult, and I would dread it. Nevertheless, I persevered and now writing is much easier and more enjoyable. Here are some specific suggestions.
    • Make an effort to write every day, during the time when your brain and body are at their best. For me, this is the morning.
    • Allow yourself to write “s&*^ty first drafts.” Do not try to spit out the perfect word/sentence/paragraph on the first try. Write freely, edit later.
    • Do not start out trying to write for hours at a time. If you are not used to writing regularly, aim for 30 minutes or even just 10 minutes. If you write for 10 minutes a day, that is almost an hour of writing per week. If you do 30 minutes a day, that adds up to 2.5 hours! The Pomodoro technique can be very helpful here.
    • Join a writing group. For about two years, I did Academic Writing Club, an online group where professors or grad students from related disciplines are joined by a “coach”, create weekly goals for themselves, and check in daily with their progress. It is not free, but in my opinion worth it (and you can probably use your research budget). If you are looking for a free writing group, look for people around your university who are willing to get together and write!
  4. Prioritize projects based on how close they are to publication. (Obviously your coauthors’ preferences and constraints matter here, so this is a general guideline). Specifically, this should be the order of your priorities, if not on a daily, then at least on a weekly level:
    • Proofs of accepted papers that need to be turned around to the publisher. [When I first heard this suggestion, my reaction was, “I don’t have any proofs!” If that is the case, don’t worry, you will get there.]
    • Revise-and-resubmits.
    • Working papers that are closest to submission, whether these are brand new ones or rejected ones looking for a new home.
    • Projects that are closest to becoming working papers (e.g., ones where the analysis is complete).
    • Projects where you are analyzing the data (working with a model, if you’re a theorist).
    • Projects that are newer than everything above.

5. Try to avoid being the bottleneck. If someone is waiting for you to do something on a project before she or he can work on it, try to prioritize that task. Obviously, one reason for this is that your coauthors may be annoyed if you take too long to do something you promised to do. But another (possibly more important) reason is that by not being the bottleneck, you can boost your annual productivity by having your coauthors (or research assistants) do their work faster.