Should I Do A PhD?

Should You Do a PhD?

"Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever."

― Mahatma Gandhi

Deciding whether to do a PhD involves a wide range of factors. Learning more about a subject you are passionate about is a great thing. If you love academic life, another few years at university are beneficial, too. But there are a few things to consider before committing your time and your money to a PhD.

What is a PhD?

PhD stands for Doctorate of Philosophy. It is also known as a doctorate. A PhD is the highest academic award a student can achieve. A publication-worthy PhD thesis is 60,000-90,000 words long. Many institutions, such as the University of Cambridge, have an upper limit of 80,000 words.

Why are you doing a PhD?

What is your end goal? Maybe you are hoping to land a nice university position such as a lecturer or post doctoral research position. Perhaps you crave academic acclaim for your research. Are you looking to land a high-paying job? Or maybe you want to apply your knowledge to help society.

Jobs in academia

Academia as a career path is a challenging one. It is a stressful career that favours universities over the PhD student. According to a study by the Royal Society and the Wellcome Trust, 40% of academics suffer from mental health conditions. PhD work is riddled with fierce competition for jobs and funding. And an oversupply of PhD students means that jobs are few and conditions may not be great.

Employing lots of PhD students is a great deal for universities. They are a source of inexpensive academic labour for research and teaching. But it is not such a great deal for the PhD students themselves. According to the University and College Union, more than 75% of junior academics are on zero-hours contracts.

The result is a market where jobs are few but in high demand. The challenges facing PhD students looking for an academic career have led to an average dropout rate of 50%.

But it is not all doom and gloom. While an often cited figure is that only 7 in every 200 PhD students land a permanent academic job, this was cited almost ten years ago. Applying a little academic scrutiny means we can take this figure with a pinch of salt.

The Wellcome Trust has also recently overhauled the conditions attached to the way it funds postdocs and PhDs. The goal is to make PhDs more attractive, more valuable and more accessible to students.

Positive change is coming, so now is a great time to start your PhD.

Landing a decent job

There are very few jobs out there that need a PhD. But, if you want one of those jobs, acquiring a PhD is going to be a major hurdle. It is not the sort of thing employers will be flexible on.

Most of these jobs (University Professor, Dean etc.) are jobs in academia that are not research-focused. Others, such as jobs in the Sciences require a PhD if you want a good starting salary.

Most jobs, even positions high up in organisations, do not need a PhD. In fact, they would prefer you to have industry experience instead.

So, should you do a PhD to get a good job? It depends on the job you want. But it might be worth looking for industry experience rather than the academic pursuit of a PhD.

That being said, PhDs are not pointless. You can translate many skills from your PhD to a non-academic role, such as:

  • Communication skills
  • Creative & critical thinking
  • Personal & team management
  • Problem-solving skills

All these skills are useful in a variety of jobs. As a bonus, your skills have the rigour that PhD study demands.

Changing the world

More decorates are being completed than ever before. Today, the academic world is more open to people who want to push their ideas to their zenith. As a result, not every PhD thesis is going to light the world on fire. But many have changed the world forever.

Here are 5 PhD theses that changed the world.

1. A New Determination of Molecular Dimensions | Albert Einstein, 1906

Einstein’s groundbreaking thesis was instrumental in laying down the framework for his work on Brownian Motion. This changed the way we understand the very nature of the universe.

2. Recherches sur les substances radioactives | Marie Curie, 1903

Marie Curie’s PhD thesis documents her discovery of radioactivity in various materials. For this work, she won the 1903 Nobel Prize in Physics. She met a tragic end as a result of her research, but our understanding of radioactivity has its foundations in her work.

3. A Symbolic Analysis of Relay and Switching Circuits | Claude Shannon, 1937

You might know binary (01101010100 etc.) as the building block of computing. It was this thesis, written by Shannon when he was 21, that proved how Boolean Algebra can create the computers we use today. The entire computing industry has run on this principle to this day.

4. The Difference Between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature | Karl Marx, 1841

In this landmark thesis, Marx argues the differences between “freedom and determinism”. This work lays the foundational understanding of Marxism and everything that came after. This is a revolutionary thesis in every sense of the word.

5. Non-cooperative games | John Nash, 1950

“Non Cooperative Games” formed the building block for the Nash equilibrium, a solution concept that has far-reaching consequences in game theory and economics.

Doing a PhD allows you to take an idea, apply it to the real world and test it to breaking point. The results could change the way we see the world forever.

How long does it take to do a PhD?

Full-time PhDs typically last three or four years, while part-time PhDs last six or seven. While most PhD studentships begin in September or October, PhDs can be undertaken at any point during the year. A standard PhD degree is typically split into three stages.

First, you establish your action plan and deadlines. You will spend most of the rest of the year undertaking a literature review. This involves evaluating and critiquing existing works to make sure your research will be original.

Your second year will involve a great deal of academic activity. The goal is to gain experience, work your ideas and present your thoughts to the world. This might involve:

  • Presenting your PhD ideas at academic conferences
  • Teaching
  • Collaborating on similar projects
  • Communicating the benefits of your research to the general public
  • Submitting work for publication in an academic journal or book

Finally, you have to write your PhD thesis. After your supervisor gives their approval, you will submit your thesis, then undertake an oral exam (viva voce). In your viva voce, you will discuss and defend your thesis in the presence of at least one internal and external examiner.

Is it worth doing a PhD?

Yes. It is worth doing a PhD if you are passionate about your subject and have the commitment to see it through. The experience you gain and the work you do will be valuable to you throughout your life, wherever it may lead you.

Your doctorate will give you connections in your chosen field of study. The qualification will open doors to higher salaries and better job opportunities. And maybe, just maybe, your work will light the world on fire.

But it is a long road from day 1 of university to receiving your diploma. There are both timing and funding questions to consider. We understand the challenges ahead and we are here to help. Speak to us today and discover how our academic support services can help you.