Perks and perils of a PhD

Nijō Castle garden.

Pond in the gardens of Nijō Castle, Kyoto. A good spot for pondering. The castle has whistling floorboards, to warn you if an assassin is sneaking up on you. Modern buildings don’t do enough to warn you of assassins.

This blog has been neglected recently as I have been busy travelling, with conferences and meetings (with a little holiday in between) in Japan, Korea and Germany. I am now back in Birmingham where we have a veritable army of summer students. They are all enthusiastic, and seem to be doing well at both their projects and joining in lunchtime conversations. One asked whether it was a good idea to do a PhD? Travelling to interesting places in one of the perks of being an academic, but does it compensate all the hard work? Here are my thoughts on doing a PhD now mine is safely done but still fresh in my memory.

The third degree

A PhD is not a simple continuation of your studies. One of the things that surprised me was how different research is from study (although they may share many of the same skills). At school and undergraduate you learn: you pay attention in class, you do assignments and projects, you revise and you take assessments. If you work hard at these, you pick up new knowledge and skills, and end up doing well. (Wooh!) In research, you have to solve problems, to figure out how to do things that have never been done before (which may require picking up new knowledge and skills). This can be extremely exciting: you could be the only person in the world to know how to do something, but since you are trying something new, it could also turn out not to work… You can work hard in a particular area for days, weeks or even years, and it all come to nothing.

Research projects at an undergraduate level are different from those at postgraduate. The former are usually designed to be safely solvable, and even if things don’t work out, you come to the end of your time and be given marks for effort. It’s much harder to put together a PhD dissertation without results, and a lack of progress (perhaps especially if through no fault of your own) can be especially demotivating.

When asked about doing a PhD, the current PhDs showed varying levels of enthusiasm. This is usually correlated with how things are going and how close they are to finishing. Maggie, who is always keen on encouraging people to learn about science, has put together a list of 5 reasons why you should do a PhD. I think these neatly sum up some of main motivations for doing a PhD.

1. Freedom and flexibility

Academia enjoys a lot of freedom. And I don’t just mean that you don’t have to wear a tie

You don’t have to work standard office hours, but can often schedule things around you. This can be especially handy if you have family commitments, you don’t function well in the morning, or just fancy an afternoon off. It can also have the downside of blurring the work/life divide. Working from home gives you the flexibility to work in your pyjamas, but it can also makes it easy to work evenings and weekends—perhaps the weekends are the best time to come in to the lab because there are fewer people trying to use the most shiny equipment. It can be difficult to maintain a healthy work/life balance, and it can also lead to ridiculous expectations that you can work all the time (or should feel guilty if you’re not). Of course, sometimes you have to visit the lab every two hours to look after your experiment, and there’s no flexibility at all.

As well of freedom in when you schedule work, there is also freedom in what you do. It’s difficult to predict where a PhD will go, but you can focus in on what you are interested in and what you enjoy. Your supervisor, future examiners and potential employers may disagree with you about what’s worthwhile researching, so you do have some constraints; however, as long as solve an interesting problem, it doesn’t matter as much as in industry if it’s a different one to the one you started with. Some of the best PhD projects I have seen (or been involved with) come about because the student came across a new technique they wanted to play with, read up on a different area out or just wanted to help answer someone else’s question. Procrastination can have some useful side-effects.

2. The title

Being a doctor is pretty cool. Not as cool as being the Doctor, but still, it can command some respect. However, that doesn’t mean you receive (or deserve) any special treatment. Contrary to popular opinion, your title doesn’t go on your passport. It does indicate that you are an expert in one particular area; however, this might be an obscure and unhelpful one.  If you are ever on a flight and the attendant asks “Is there a doctor of astrophysics on board?” you are probably sufficiently doomed that you might as well just stay seated and try to finish up your peanuts in whatever time remains.

In the end, it is having completed the difficult research and produced a quality thesis that is worth the respect, and not the extra letters with your name. If you are not interested in the the former, the latter will not give you the motivation to put in the time and effort to complete it.

3. To prove you’re smart

Leading on from the last point, a doctorate is a seal of academic quality. However, I really wouldn’t suggest doing a PhD because you need to validate your intelligence. You are intelligent whether or not you decide to go to graduate school, and one should never assume that someone is less smart because they lack a PhD—first, because you do not know what opportunities they may or may not have had in life, and second, intelligence is about more than academic achievements. If you’re a lazy writer, giving a character a PhD is an easy way to establish they are clever without having to think of way for them to show it. In real life, people will soon figure out how smart you are by interacting with you (if they are only interested in titles, find someone else).

Getting a PhD isn’t just a case of being smart, it’s not a prize on a game show. As much as intelligence, a doctorate requires determination. Undergraduate is like a sprint, you can work really hard for a short stretch (around exams) and then collapse. The quickest people will come out on top, but you could still take it at a jog and make it to the end provided you don’t mind being second. A doctorate is more like a marathon, its not enough to be fast, you need to be able to keep going, to pace yourself and to pick yourself up if you trip. Both can be exhausting and painful, but it’s much more important to figure out if you can really go the distance before starting on the 26 miles.

Perhaps you are unsure if you’re up-to-scratch and want to try a PhD to see? Finding out that you can do it may be a huge confidence boost! However, academia can also batter your ego as you’ll be surrounded by other equally intelligent people. I guess you just need to be happy with who you are.

Finally, parents may like to show off the achievements of their children, and you may make your friends proud, but it’s not them who have to spend the time in the library. Making people you love proud is wonderful, but so is spending time with them. A PhD can consume huge amounts of time, energy and attention (especially while writing up). It should be something that you want to do, not something other people want you to do.

4. Broadening your horizons

Academia does give you the chance to visit new places and work with people all over the world. I really enjoyed my summer travels and Maggie is currently observing at a telescope in Chile. Of course you don’t always have that luxury: sometimes conferences aren’t in interesting places or funding could be running short. My first two conferences were in Glasgow and Cardiff. Both are lovely cities to visit, but neither was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. If you are really keen on travel, then there are other careers that give you better excuses to travel. Or you could take a better paid job and just pay for yourself to go on holiday. Travel, like free coffee, is a perk, but it’s not enough to justify doing a PhD.

The KAGRA detector

I visited the in-construction Kamioka Gravitational Wave Detector (KAGRA) in Japan. It is being built underground, in an old mine in the Hida Mountains. You can see part of the vacuum tubing for one of the laser-interferometer arms in the foreground, and where they’re going to suspend a mirror from the room above in the background. It’s amazing engineering and the views outside are impressive too! They’re on a tight schedule, aiming for a first run (albeit at terrible sensitivity) this year.

More importantly, a PhD gives you the opportunity to come across new ideas and ways of looking at a problem; to work with interesting, intelligent people from a range of backgrounds, and time to examine the world (or Universe) in detail in many different ways. That might all be from your cluttered desk, but it can be really exciting.

5. For knowledge

Over the course of a doctorate you will learn many things: the best seminars for free food, how to manage you supervisor and lots of transferable skills. However, the big thing is your thesis. Through your research, you will contribute something to the sum of human knowledge. It may be revolutionary, it’s more likely to be something that will go towards a bigger question (with help from lots of others), but it could also be the discovery that this particular thing doesn’t work. You research will push back the boundary of the unknown. You will become a world expert in your area: no-one will know your research as well as you do. If there is a topic that really interests you, if there is something that you want to know more about, then a PhD gives you the chance to explore this.

In my opinion, this is the only reason to do a PhD. There are other benefits and perks, but this should be your motivation. A PhD is not just a training course, but is another step towards understanding everything. I think that is amazing.

The forbidden motivation

Having been through the list, you may think there is something missing. What about doing a PhD to get a job? There are few careers that require a PhD, and it may not serve any more advantage than a Masters. Doing a PhD probably won’t make you rich. It may make you more attractive to some employers, but maybe spending the same amount of time working your way up from a lower rung would be just as effective? Extremely few employers have any kind of hiring scheme for PhDs, so in many cases you would start at a similar level as someone with an undergraduate degree. Some areas, of course, have strong industrial links, so it’s easy to move across. In this case, doing a PhD can be a great option: you can even get to work with potential future employers during your study (and possibly get some extra funding). The usefulness of a PhD strongly depends on the area.

There is one domain where a PhD is the well-established first step. Academia. Many think of academia as the logical progression, but it is not. You are not guaranteed an academic job with a PhD. In the sciences, most PhDs will not continue in academia. According to a report from the Royal Society, only 3.5% of science PhDs in the UK end up with a permanent academic position, and only 0.45% become professors. Competition is extremely tough: the number of PhDs awarded is increasing rapidly, but the number of faculty positions is remaining constant. I do not think the situation is better in the arts. A PhD student should not expect to get a job in academia.

The answer

A PhD is a big commitment, and requires careful contemplation. There are many reasons why you might be considering doing one; however, I think that if you’re going to enjoy the experience, the motivation you need is the desire to spend several years getting to know one particular area really well. You must be happy to invest years of your life without any guarantee of returns. You’ll pick up many useful skills, but that will not make you irresistibly desirable to employers—some will regard you as overqualified, and the prospects of an academic career are slim. You will receive opportunities you wouldn’t otherwise, in particular, to meet some awesome people. A PhD is a challenge, research can be both deeply rewarding and excruciatingly frustrating (sometimes in the same afternoon). On balance, if it is the right thing for you is deeply personal. As is common in research, to answer this question, we need further data.

Should you decide to go for it, the next thing to think about is the area and the location. You should make sure you get adequate funding, and take care in picking a supervisor—always talk to their current students. Perhaps we’ll come back to these points later. Good luck!

Lanterns at the Jogyesa temple, Seoul.

Panorama of lanterns at the Jogyesa temple, Seoul. Beautiful, and you can keep following it around in circles, just like a PhD…

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How sport is like science

Athene Donald, Professor of Experimental Physics and soon-to-be Master of my old college, Churchill, recently blogged about how athletics resembles academia. She argued that both are hard careers: they require many years of training, and even then success is not guaranteed—not everyone will reach the top to become an Olympian or a Professor—there is a big element of luck too—a career can stall because of an injury or because of time invested in a study that eventually yields null results, and, conversely, a single big championship win or serendipitous discovery can land a comfortable position. These factors can make these career paths unappealing, but still most people who enter them do so because they love the area, and have a real talent for the field.

The Breakfast Club

As The Breakfast Club taught us, being into physics or sports can have similar pressures.

I find this analogy extremely appealing. There are many parallels. Both sports and academic careers are meritocratic and competitive. Most who enter them will not become rich—those who do, usually manage it by making use of their profile, either through product endorsement or through writing a book, say Stephen Hawking, or Michael Jordan (although he was still extremely well paid). Both fields have undisputed heavy-weights like Einstein or Muhammad Ali, and media superstars like Neil deGrasse Tyson or Anna Kournikova; both have inspirational figures who have overcome adversity, be they Jesse Owens or Emmy Noether, and idols whose personal lives you probably shouldn’t emulate, say Tiger Woods or Richard Feynman. However, I think the similarity can stretch beyond career paths.

Athene says that although she doesn’t participate in athletics, she does enjoy watching the sport. I’m sure many can empathise with that position. I think that this is similarly the case for research: many enjoy finding out about new discoveries or ideas, even though they don’t want to invest the time studying themselves. There are many excellent books and documentaries, many excellent communicators of research. (I shall be helping out at this year’s British Science Festival, which I’m sure will be packed with people keen to find out about current research.) However, there is undoubtedly more that could be done, both in terms of growing the market and improving the quality—reporting of science is notoriously bad. If you were to go into any pub in the country, I’d expect you’d be able to find someone to have an in-depth conversation with about how best to manage the national football team, despite them not being a professional footballer. Why not someone with similar opinions about research council funding? Can we make research as popular as sport?

Increasing engagement with and awareness of research is a popular subject, most research grants with have some mention of wider impact; however, I don’t think that this is the only goal. According to UK government research, many young students do enjoy science, they just don’t feel it is for them. The problem is that people think that science is too difficult. Given my previous ramblings, that’s perhaps understandable. However, that was for academic research; science is far broader than that! There are many careers outside the lab, and understanding science is useful even if that’s not your job, for example when discussing subjects like global warming or vaccination that affect us all. Coming back to our sports analogy, the situation is like children not wanting to play football because they won’t be a professional. It’s true that most people aren’t good enough to play for England (potentially including members of the current squad, depending upon who you ask in that pub), but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a kick around, perhaps play for a local team at weekend, or even coach others. Playing sports regular keeps you physically fit, which is a good thing™; taking an interest in science (or language or literature or etceteras) keeps you mentally fit, also a good thing™.

Chocolate models

Chocolate is also a good thing™. However, neither Nobel Prizes nor Olympic Medals are made of chocolate, something I’m not sure that everyone appreciates. I’d make the gold Olympic models out of milk chocolate, silver out of white and bronze out of dark. The Nobel Prize for Medicine should contain nuts as an incentive to cure allergies; the Prize for Economics should be mint(ed) chocolate, the Peace Prize Swiss chocolate, the Chemistry Prize should contain popping candy, and the Physics Prize should be orange chocolate (that’s my favourite).

How to encourage more people to engage in science is a complicated problem. There’s no single solution, but it is something to work on. I would definitely prefer to live in a science-literate society. Stressing applications of science beyond pure research might be one avenue. I would also like to emphasis that it’s OK to find science (and maths) hard. Problem solving is difficult, like long-distance running, but if you practise, it does get easier. I can only vouch for one side of that simile from personal experience, but since I’m a theoretician, I’m happy enough to state that without direct experimental confirmation. I guess that means I should take my own advice and participate more myself: spend a little more time being physically active? Motivating myself is also a difficult problem.