The Pros and Cons of a PhD

(First published on my personal blog, Adage of Ania on 19th May, 2015).

There is much debate about the career prospects of scientists, especially those in STEM fields. Are we training too many PhDs? Can the postdoc (the next training step after a PhD in academia) still be considered a temporary position anymore?

Will they all get a job? Not in academia at least, with only an estimated 10% of PhD holders actually securing academic positions.

These and many other issues have been argued across conference rooms and campuses across the world and anyone considering a PhD should absolutely evaluate whether a PhD is something they should do.

Do you really want to do a PhD?

It should come down to one thing: Knowledge. A PhD is a journey in which you are expected to contribute to the comprehension of the world around us. If you are not truly passionate about learning and devoting at least a few years of life to the pursuit of knowledge, you should not do a PhD.

A PhD is unlikely to give you fame and fortune and requires endless hours, days and years of work that can often yield no positive answers. You sign up to explore the unknown which comes with a large degree of risk. You could spend years on a hypothesis or direction that you can never prove or determine, get beaten to the final result by another lab on the other side of the world or face immense technical difficulties (or all of the above!). You need to accept that you are stupid. Not moronic stupid, but, as Professor Martin Schwartz of Yale University describes, stupid as in you don’t know the answer to your question — because it is very likely NO-ONE does (I often send this article to our new graduate students to help them recognize that they can’t know exactly what to do, because there is no correct answer or anyone to answer it).

So what are the benefits and negatives of doing a PhD?

Let’s start with the negatives:

1. Time.

A PhD is largely unregulated, depending on the management style of your PhD adviser (often called a Principal Investigator, PI or Group Leader). Some are micromanagers, who want to dictate your every move, others are much more hands off — meeting you once a week (or less!) so you can report your progress and they can give you general direction. Regardless, many PIs expect you to work long hours and this is usually an unspoken rule, but again it depends on the PI and institution. I regularly worked 12 hour plus days during my PhD and over weekends. Now, I tend to work slightly less hours, but I am also a lot more productive! In addition, depending on where you undertake your PhD, it can take you anywhere from 3 years to 6, which is a very long time to be working very long hours in addition to the other items on this list you should consider.

2. Training

How your PhD goes depends largely on three factors: your lab, your motivation and luck. You need all three. You are there to be trained and you likely know very little on your subject area or how to actually conduct science at the beginning. You rely on your PI and your fellow lab members to help point you in the right direction. The field of your research is likely to be very large and you can’t read thousands of articles to get the most complete picture (although by the end you most likely will — and should). You also are unlikely to know what techniques you should learn and apply to your research question and how best to even frame your hypothesis so you have a chance of even slightly answering it. It is my opinion that how good of a scientist you are is, in part, due to the great training that you receive when you first start out.

Secondly, your motivation. Research is a gruelling endeavour, there are weeks where nothing goes right, yet you still need to get out of bed and go to the lab. Even when you are poor and tired, you still need to go to the lab because that is the only way you will ever get a success. Your success is entirely linked to you — how motivated you are to keep on top of the literature, to complete those experiments and perhaps most importantly, how well you can reconcile what is known, what your data is telling you and what the next step should be.

Thirdly, but no less important, is luck. This may seem like an odd thing to include in this list, but luck and intuition plays a big role in scientific research. You may have the perfect question and the ideal experiment to answer that question, yet it could be a complete and utter failure due to a factor you may never identify. Much of what happens in a test or Eppendorf tube, as much as we try to control it, is chaotic; with the perfect storm of variables contributing to whether your experiment is successful or not. That is where your controls pay an integral role, both positive and negative. They can help determine if a known variable is contributing to your experiment, or whether that is what the result just is. Perhaps you have used a cell line where you won’t see that effect? Perhaps your DNA was in a tightly packed configuration causing your PCR reaction to give you no bands? The bigger part luck plays is in your project area itself. Some people, with a combination of luck and intelligent motivation ask just the right question and have the right tools (including people) at their disposable to answer them. Not everyone can be in this situation unfortunately, although we all dream of it.

All of this means that much what you learn in a PhD is not taught in a formal class, indeed due to the nature of it, it cannot be. How you learn is very variable among people so there is no perfect way to teach someone how to think about science, how to manage their time and how to involve the best people and resources during the process.

3. Stress

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Given how much time, lack of formal training and unpredictable scientific research is, it is not surprising that it usually leads to a tremendous amount of stress. The inability to deal with rejection (something I have written about for BiteSizeBio — coming soon!) and the tough competitive nature in publishing and attaining funding is something that weighs on every scientist in some way. In addition, labs have the same political and interpersonal issues as any other workplace. Given that academic science is often seen as a “lone wolf” endeavour, where you usually work on your own project, largely on your own, it can sometimes attract people who do not play with others (although this is not always the case!). Learning to deal with difficult personalities, bosses (PIs/group leaders) who often have no managerial training yet, in essence head up a small corporation that is the lab and the chaotic nature of trying to unlock the secrets of the Universe all play into a stressful environment and potentially more sinister psychological pathologies.

4. Mental Wellbeing

A recent study reported that almost 50% of the graduate students at UC Berkley suffered from some form of depression. This is unsurprising given all of the potential sources of stress one can encounter during a PhD and likely reflects similar trends at Institutions worldwide. To make matters worse, Graduate students are often the most underserved student population in terms of departmental assistance. When I was a PhD student, there was very little mention (if at all) of specific counselling for graduate students. There was no talk of how to balance your research and life or any strategies for managing your stress levels.

I was extremely fortunate that I had a great group of friends, both in academic science and outside of it. Every morning for almost 3 years, I would meet one of my best friends for coffee and we would chat for half an hour about life and work. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I think we both agree now, that having that interaction likely powered my ability to continue in science. Every weekend, I would go to bar trivia with friends (most of whom were no longer in science) and those few hours on a Sunday afternoon, not always talking or thinking science was a godsend.

Although I was able to manage my mental health by utilizing my social support network, I still suffered mental anguish, especially imposter syndrome — a largely undocumented but very prevalent feeling among scientists that they are imposters and achieved their accomplishments through flukes rather than their own intelligence and willpower. To people who already have underlying mental issues, scientific research could cause them to have a further reduction in mental wellbeing. So please, if you know you may be in this position, please realize that you may need to find help yourself as there may not be many systems in place to recognize that you are not coping very well. Realize that it is always okay to ask for help.

5. Jobs

As mentioned before, during an academic PhD, you are largely training to be an academic, however less than 10% of you will actually secure an academic position. Even if you are lucky and successful enough to land a position in academia, the first decade as an untenured professor is a very difficult one, with very little job security and a constant need to acquire funding to keep your lab alive. Fortunately, there are a mass of “alternative” careers (ironically — they are not actually the alternative as more people are likely to go into these then academia). These are in a wide variety of fields as far flung as consulting, the venture capitalist world, patent law, technology transfer, medical affairs regulation, non-profit organizations, science policy and management to careers closer to home such as publishing, research and development at pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies and teaching. Ultimately — a PhD provides you with many transferable skills and there are many career options available to you. In addition, if you do a PhD expecting a job to be handed to you on a silver platter, once again you will be disappointed. Just like any other profession, after your education, you still need to compete in a competitive job market, regardless of the kind of job you are pursuing! You may be very well placed for many jobs — you just need to know how to best market yourself (I am planning to write about this in the future!).

Although much emphasis is placed on the technical training during a PhD: how to run an experiment and all the techniques that may be useful in assessing a hypothesis, the real benefit of a PhD is in the softer skills that one acquires during the training. Although having a strong technical skill set is crucial to be able to execute good (and publishable) science, anyone who has run hundreds of PCR reactions or spent hours buried in a tissue culture

Photo credit: Unhappy big gorilla eating via photopin (license).

hood knows that a trained monkey can go through many of the physical motions of carrying out an experiment. We are more than trained primates (no offense to our fellow hominids)! Firstly, to construct a hypothesis (a scientific statement or question that we aim to answer or conclude using experimentation), we need to know what to ask. For this, we need to learn how to research — how to find out what has been done previously and identify the gaps in the scientific knowledge so we can answer them. The vast majority of this is done by reading the scientific literature — which is often hundreds if not thousands of scientific articles and not one paper will answer all of your questions or provide you with your own question to solve. We learn how to best digest all of this information to identify the gaps and formulate a question. This involves processing a lot of information and drawing relevant ideas and conclusions from them (much like analysts do!).

Once we have a research question, we can then can then identify how best to answer that question. There are a myriad of factors to consider and nearly 100% of the time you are unable to answer your question directly. Our current technology does not allow us to be able to and we may never be able to. Think about a simple question: why is this pen blue? To be able to answer that question you need to understand some assumptions you make: is this pen really blue? What constitutes as “blue” and then to the actual mechanism — what makes this pen blue? We can hypothesize that it is due to the dye, perhaps from the leaves of a plant, that is giving that colour, but then how is that happening? What is it in the dye that is causing our eyes to see blue? Luckily, we safely know the answer to the question. There are photoreceptors in our eyes that detect colour wavelengths and this information is relayed to our brain that interprets “blue”. But do we know what is blue? Some people perceive colours differently (as brilliantly demonstrated by “the dress” controversy!), so what causes people to observe different colours? Now our answer is not quite so simple and involves neuroscience and physics! Now imagine trying to ask questions in areas where we don’t have as much background knowledge and need to make many more assumptions!

In addition, science is often answered by negatives. That is, you judge an effect by what it may NOT do and well as what it does. When we make a hypothesis, we try to assault it from all corners to try and identify the bigger picture of what is happening and whether we have assumed correctly. Often, we are wrong and our experiments present contradictory and confusing results! So we refine our idea, tweak it so it fits this new data and start the process again, pushing in this new direction, identifying what we have assumed correctly and changing aspects that we have assumed incorrectly. Science is in constant and dynamic flux. It is a chaotic battle between what we do know and the limitations of how we have asked our question and new technologies and ideas that question and remodel our research hypothesis.

This can be extremely exhilarating (albeit also incredibly frustrating) and knowing that you are effectively doing something that no-one has done before and contributing to human knowledge and the betterment of mankind is what drives many scientists. We walk on the moon on a daily basis and endure all of the failures and successes that come with setting forth in unknown worlds.

Although I have managed to write more about negatives than positives, I truly believe that doing a PhD was the right thing for me. I have learnt valuable skills such as the ability to analyse data and the world around me, to manage my own projects and lead people. It has given me the chance to do research and potentially contribute important information on how an aspect of the world works. It was the right choice for me — but only you can decide if it is the right choice for you. If you have read this article and cringed at the negatives but haven’t been excited by the positives, it may not be the right thing for you. I hope I haven’t sugar-coated it: Research and Science is hard. It is likely to be the hardest thing you do in your life. It becomes your baby — which is very difficult if you have your own babies and/or life outside research! It is truly a rollercoaster ride capable of many horrible downs and some incredible highs. The ride each person takes will be different — and not everyone should be riding it!

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