Is a PhD worth it?

If you are a student pursuing a PhD or master’ degree, this article is for you. Should I conduct my research or learn new skills demanded by the industry?

I am a Doctoral student pursuing my PhD in technology in my second year of studies, and this article is for those who feel lost in what they are doing and what are they supposed to be doing during their four years. While much of the industry assumes that “Academic work such as PhD is theoretical and without work pressure”, They are WRONG!

People think that the outcome of a PhD or any research is a big fat written textbook(known as a monograph) submitted to a University for review. If you are one of those who think the same, warning, this article may change your views.

Research is a purposive experience of collecting, organising, and presenting data that intends to develop sciences while developing an individual’s ability to build strong cause and effects thinking. Research builds self-discipline, project management, work ethics, collaboration, and problem-solving competencies. It allows you to make knowledge independently, irrespective of your work domain.

I structure this article into four parts to understand this problem and attempt to enlighten you through my experiences being in the industry and academia.

  1. What are Doctoral students expected to do?
  2. What do Doctoral students actually do?
  3. What is the end outcome of a PhD or a Research thesis?
  4. How to manage self-growth without losing sight of your potential employer’s needs?

What are Doctoral students expected to do?

The primary duty of any doctoral student, irrespective of their university, is to conduct and publish research in decently rated journals during their study period. Most universities demand at least one research paper published and attached to your dissertation. Reading and writing papers get an interesting analogy from me:

Publishing Research is almost as if you are making a business pitch to an Angel Investor! You have an idea, a product, the technology and the know-how around which you create a viable business model, but you have exactly 2 minutes to present and explain everything to the investor and convince him to fund your venture. If you can’t explain your work, you lose an opportunity for a seed investment. This is precisely what researchers do but in a different format.

Now that we have understood the primary duty of researchers, but what are doctoral students’ responsibilities in reality?

What do Doctoral students actually do?

Research requires money. No University can afford researchers if they need to pay salaries from their own pockets. Moreover, PhD students cannot research if they don’t have the appropriate equipment, software, databases or any infrastructure that allows them to progress in their work. Therefore, a bunch of their duties also involve other things like:

  1. Applying for Funding and grants: Involves making research proposals for multi-million dollar projects for individual funding, competing against thousands of other researchers.
  2. Managing research projects: Research projects are a way of getting their salaries paid and collecting data simultaneously. They are large projects funded by private or public organisations, with millions of Euros to spend and activities to deliver, similar to corporate projects.
  3. Teaching duties: As a doctoral student, you are expected to teach and share knowledge with peers in your topic area.
  4. Publish: It is necessary to read, write, collect, organise data and publish your work to prove that you are worthy of conducting research independently.
  5. Supervision duties: You are expected to supervise your Masters'/bachelors thesis and prove your ability to guide others.
  6. Develop new skills: the most underrated part is finding time for yourself on what you want to learn that may benefit your work. It may be learning a programming language, photography, videography, languages etc. Any skills you think promote and contribute to personal growth make you better than others.

Yea, it’s a lot of things. On top of it is finding a work-life balance for the things you enjoy and love. And many PhD students, including me, start to question this lifestyle halfway through the process, “is it worth it and does it make me more employable after the PhD? What’s next for me after my PhD?”

To estimate its value, let’s understand what you learn from the PhD experience.

What do you learn from a PhD or a Research thesis?

A PhD experience of a doctoral student comes with its own set of ups and downs, frustrations and accomplishments, failures and successes.

But the most important skills that you learn are the skills that every industry or company demands. Surprise, it’s not the complex technical skillset you are evaluated for; instead, companies today hire you for the soft ones. Some critical ones are listed below:

  1. Self-discipline and consistency: establishing self-discipline and character in your tasks. You cannot complete your PhD if you don't remain consistent.
  2. Time management: As Doctoral students, we run out of time all the time. But it’s your job to create and dedicate quality time to reading papers, books and articles every day. Be it a small chapter or a page, you must MAKE time.
  3. Resource management: You learn to manage multiple things simultaneously and be productive to prioritise tasks. Managing Budget, the scope of work and quality are the three pillars of project management, it is indifferent when it comes to a PhD. In fact, it is exactly like a large project that you manage and execute by yourself.
  4. Data skills: You learn to arrange and organize vast sets of data and literature clearly and concisely and learn to present them to others. You summarize massive data sets almost instantly and figure out the critical message that the data delivers.
  5. You learn “how to learn”: You learn to structure your logical thinking to an extent where, if anyone asks you to study “Criminal law”, you may not know it immediately, but you know how to find and learn this information, and adapt it to your scenario. You learn to build your knowledge.
  6. Ethical science: “Doing things the right way and Doing the Right things” both are essential for a good problem solver. Work ethics are not taught through theory but are practised in your research. Repeatability, reliability, validity, Risk assessment, Contingencies of data, and confidentiality are all business-related terminologies that you consider by definition in research.
  7. Interconnections in Academia and Industry: When you read literature, your mind subconsciously makes connections to other theories, experiences, and professional life that interlink together that make you realise existing issues with “industry practices”. This is impossible from a pure business-oriented mindset since you are too busy making money and stuck with poor financial quarters trying to figure out why it happened.

Conducting research or pursuing a PhD makes you a better problem solver and develops a robust structured thinking ability when you contribute to the “Global scientific community” instead of pursuing Local monetary goals. Sure, I believe business is essential and the absolute proof of research in practice, but so is scientific work that leads to enhancing industry-leading business practices, developing understandings, learning from business failures, and trying to make sense of the world as we know it, all to make it better purposefully. All so we don't fail in real business!

How to manage self-growth without losing sight of your potential employer’s needs?

That brings us to an important question, how do you manage to grow without losing sight of the industry? So then, how do we drive our personal growth and get through it? I have a relatively simple answer.

Stop thinking about your potential employer and start working on yourself! Slowly, consistently and by starting somewhere! It’s an emergent process, and you cannot rush it without sacrificing your personal growth.

There are infinite jobs, and you will land one or several of them. But the point is not “changing your core skill set to what the industry currently requires, but instead developing your skillset for which the future market requirements would evolve to”. And that happens NOW!

I attempt to adapt some skills in my life recently motivated to write this post and complete my PhD studies in the best possible way without losing sight of who I wish to be in the future as a professional.

  1. Consistency: It all comes down to this one word — consistent, everyday work. Read papers, write papers every day, no matter how small it is.
  2. Planning the work carefully and making time: You need to dedicate time to your work. Yes, you will have to sacrifice a few weekends but making time is the only thing you can do for yourself. You do not need to respond to all emails, they are a distraction, and nothing is more urgent than your Ph.D.
  3. Ask for help or figure it out: If you don't know something, be proactive and ask for guidance! Someone will help. It’s not easy to understand and learn everything in a day, but it can accelerate the process if you ask a trusted advisor, a friend, a PhD peer etc.
  4. Learn from your mistakes: This sounds simple, but making plans to learn from your mistakes and learning from them are two different things. We failed to get two grants at our university, and I'm going to try again. But I took courses for it to learn the ability and win money.
  5. Do what must be done to achieve it, no matter the circumstance. 50% of the battle is won if you have the will to do it. It’s not easy, but the easiest way to finish something is to begin.

You select a topic that motivates you and allows you to create a niche in your domain. It’s not about the quality of a PhD dissertation you produce, but what knowledge have you gained over time that enables you to create YOUR niche employee profile? A profile that is unique to you, a profile so strong that job security isn't your concern anymore, and ten other companies will offer a job if you quit one. Its excellence we are targeting, where success and monetary outcomes become a byproduct!

Lastly, consider subscribing if you enjoyed the read; it’s free and share it with your colleagues or PhD peers. Hopefully, you now know what you need to get things done!

Nikhil Phadnis, Junior Researcher, LUT University. Finland

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