Pretty Hard Degree: Why you should or shouldn’t pursue a PhD in STEM
By Wilson Kong
So you’ve decided to pursue a pretty hard degree?
Great! You are now part of the small percentage of people (less than 2% of the world’s population in fact ) crazy enough to obtain or hold a PhD. In case you didn’t already know, a PhD is the pinnacle of academic degrees in which you produce original research and are trained as a researcher. For those of you thinking about walking the PhD path, you probably have many thoughts running through those big brains of yours. The one that you’re probably thinking of the most is “ why should I do a PhD?”
Why should you spend the remainder of your twenties (or even thirties) in grad school for little pay, large amounts of stress, and maybe the prospect of a better career? Sorry to disappoint you but this article will not tell you explicitly why you should do a PhD. So if you want some convincing, you may want to visit some other website or page.
What this article will provide are reasons, based on my own experiences and observations, why a PhD may be beneficial for your career, why you may want to stay away from the degree, and to also clear up a few common misconceptions about a PhD. This will hopefully provide you the information necessary to make a relatively informed choice. Don’t be scared, the adventure is only just beginning.
Before we begin…
I want to first provide a brief background on my own personal/academic journey which has somehow taken me on the path of the PhD and led me to form the view points that I have. As a young child, I spent much of my time building things with blocks, reading from encyclopedias (before I used Google) at school, and breaking things apart at home to see how they worked (or just to be a menace to my parents). This intrinsic curiosity set me on an academic track to pursue a STEM field in college, engineering specifically. However, it was at this point where the Asian American stereotype for me ends. I struggled in college either by earning C’s, D’s, and even E’s in various engineering courses or harboring immense uncertainty as to what I was good at or what I should study for my career. In general, I felt inadequate and questioned whether or not I should continue being in a STEM field
Despite these feelings, there were ideals that kept me going:
- I loved to challenge myself.
- I loved to learn.
- I wanted to use the skills I gained to help improve our society in some way.
So, after 5 years of struggle in college, I earned a bachelor of science degree in materials science & engineering, being the first in my family to achieve a STEM education. Wanting to reinforce my knowledge and build better career prospects, I decided to pursue a master’s degree in the same field which I earned 2 years later. During the master’s program however, I struggled with whether or not to go further and pursue a PhD. Should I do it now? Should I work a few years and come back? After taking a hard look at myself and my career goals in the semiconductor industry, I realized that this is indeed the path for me. Now, I have just begun as a PhD student in materials science despite the many reservations on whether or not I should pursue one. My experiences and struggles have helped me to understand why a PhD may or may not be worth one’s time and this knowledge ought to be shared among prospective graduate students.
4 Reasons Why You Should Do A PhD:
Personal Development. You spend many years in a PhD program sharpening your research skills and contributing knowledge to your field. In addition to your technical problem solving ability, many soft skills are developed. Communication skills, both written and verbal, presentation skills, leadership ability, and managerial skills are all highly developed during the PhD period.
Funded Education. During the undergraduate years, school is typically funded by scholarships for academic merit, grants, or by those dreaded student loans. Often times the master’s degree is funded the same way or through your employer. However, the PhD in STEM is different. Students are generally supported through a variety of options such as fellowships or assistantships in order to finish the degree with nearly zero debt.
Transferable Skills. The personal development and skills you gain as a PhD holder do not necessarily limit you to the life of a scientist or and engineer. Rather, you are able to take these strong communication, leadership, and problem solving skills to other professions. Examples careers include teaching, business, politics, or anything else you want to be.
Intellectual Fulfillment. It goes without saying that you should be in a PhD program if you love to learn or that discovering new ideas excites you. A PhD is a long and grueling process which is not for those who are unable to handle the emotional and mental stress of the academic environment. If you enjoy what you learn and want to become an expert in a small aspect of your field, a PhD may be right for you.
4 Reasons Why You Should Not Do A PhD:
Loss of Time and Income. Because many years are spent earning a PhD with little income from your living stipend, you will inherently be making less money than your peers holding master’s or even bachelor’s degrees. Over time this adds to a substantial monetary loss (potentially over 150–200K). If you are someone who is money driven or has significant debt, you may want to reconsider the PhD, at least for the time being.
Unclear Job Prospects. As with any degree, a PhD is not a guarantee of a better job or a higher salary. In some cases, you may be performing the same work as a master’s or bachelor’s holder and may only earn slightly more money than either degree. You may even make more money over the course of your lifetime with a PhD but nothing is certain. Do not do a PhD if you believe that it will surely lead to better job prospects.
Uncertainty in Career/Life. Certainly do not do a PhD if you believe more schooling will help you figure out what you couldn’t figure out during undergrad or even during your master’s program. Since a PhD is a degree which requires dedication and patience, do not pursue it if you are still uncertain about your career goals or are not ready to take on the stress of the program.
Insignificant Impact on Your Field. For those superstars out there who want to change the world through groundbreaking research, I hate to disappoint you. The projects that you work on will likely not have a significant influence on your field and may generate even greater questions for others to solve. Once you get your PhD, however, you will be equipped with the skills needed to go and make those world-changing discoveries.
Common Misconceptions of a STEM PhD:
You Need to be “Smart.” Many people believe you need to be a genius with a 4.0 GPA to get into and succeed in a PhD program. Rather than being “smart,” you instead need to be: dedicated, diligent, determined, and daring. These are the traits which will allow you to survive the rigors of graduate school.
Professor or Researcher? It’s commonly believed that PhD holders eventually go obtain faculty or research positions upon graduation. However, studies show that there are far fewer faculty positions available than there are people with PhD degrees . As mentioned before, a PhD will grant you highly transferable skills which will offer enormous flexibility in your career path.
Set Graduation Period. Unlike the bachelor’s degree which generally has a set graduation path, the PhD has a bit more uncertainty associated with it. Funding issues, number of publications, and even whether or not your academic advisor wants you to graduate are all obstacles which can hinder your PhD progress and push back your graduation date.
Intellectual Freedom. You come into graduate school having a specific topic you want to study intensely. You may even join a group that works on that specific topic. However, you might only be limited to working on projects assigned to you and get to propose projects much further along in your PhD. Therefore, you might not be able to specifically study your topic of interest so keep an open mind about research topics.
So…have I scared you off?
If you still intend to stay on the PhD path, keep on reading.
Advice for Future PhD Students:
- Get research experience!! This will help you experience the research environment and strengthen your graduate application.
- Choose your advisor (a.k.a. your Boss) wisely. This is a person who will be your mentor, work closely with for many years, and decide whether or not you graduate.
- Learn to be independent because no one will hold your hand and you will be leading many of your own projects.
- Manage your time well since graduate life is highly unstructured.
- Take time to continue building your professional network and technical/soft skills.
And last but often not thought about…
Don’t be afraid to quit your program if you feel it isn’t for you or you found another career opportunity that’s more suitable.
Good luck future STEM PhD students. Whether or not you decide to do a PhD, do join me anyway in helping to change the world!
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Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com on November 1, 2017.