Are You Ready for a PhD?
I don’t regret doing a PhD, but I do regret not having a clear sense of what I wanted to do next. I had vague ideas of ‘I will get an industry job after’, and ‘I will be graduating from a top ranking university, so I will be set’. I discovered later that I was not alone; many other PhD candidates were also unsure about their career paths, and even those who started with one conviction, ended up changing their mind. In one study it was shown that only 60% of new PhD graduates in STEM had a plan for post-graduation. That means 40% had no concrete plans regarding their future!
This is why I am writing this article, to challenge you to begin with the end in mind. A PhD is a vehicle to get you somewhere, so know where you’re going, and know what tools you need to get there.
Why do you want to do a PhD?
I have asked many graduate students this question over the years and I have gotten diverse answers. From “I want to become a professor”, “I love doing research”,“9–5 jobs are not for me”, and — my personal favorite — “it will improve my social status and thus my marriage prospects!”
What I found out, however, is that very few people who do a PhD know exactly what long-term career path they plan to pursue. The majority adopt the attitude of “I will cross that bridge when I get there”. Nothing could be more damaging to your career post-PhD than being complacent and ignorant about the future. You will be spending 4 to 7 years of your life obtaining a PhD, don’t you think it’s worth knowing how that investment will pay off?
Universities have been advertising the diversity of careers that can be pursued by PhD graduates in order to attract student talent. However, presenting multiple career paths post-PhD can sometimes give a false sense of security about the future. Having more career choices can actually be harmful! Barry Schwartz, a renowned psychologist, illustrates in his TED talk that having many choices can lead to regret, continuous obsession with opportunity cost, escalated expectations and self blame. Therefore, knowing that there are many options should not make one feel safe and complacent.
There should be a somewhat clear answer to the “why PhD?” question, which will dictate what career path to pursue afterwards. So take the time to dig deeper, self reflect, and be very honest with yourself. I found this article about why people want to become entrepreneurs very insightful, but you can easily replace ‘entrepreneur’ with ‘PhD’ and it still holds. I strongly agree with the author when he says:
Uncovering and understanding those deeper motives is the first step toward becoming a successful entrepreneur [PhD] or discovering that you are not cut out for its punishing demands — the personal sacrifices, inevitable setbacks, relentless work, crushing time pressure, financial uncertainty and sleepless nights faced by 99 percent of entrepreneurs [PhDs]. You need to know whether your motivations are strong enough to carry you through an experience that can certainly be exhilarating, but also exhausting, calling on your deepest reserves of personal strength. (Emphasis added)
If your motivation is honest, objective and clear, you will know what post-PhD career path you will want to take. Knowing ‘why’ will also give you the energy to keep going when the going gets tough. And believe me, it will get tough.
Tools for Success post-PhD
If you have examined your motives, and have decided to pursue a PhD, then here are some suggestions to improve your chances of success following your studies:
- Pick the right supervisor. Do not just look at their publications, the awards they received, the talks they gave, or the nice lab hangout pictures on their website; dig deeper. Speak to people in the lab and ask them about their experience working there. Contact lab alumni to learn about their career paths and whether the supervisor helped them achieve their goals. You will be spending 4 or more years with this supervisor, so make sure that they will be able to help you achieve your post-PhD career goals.
- It is never too early to plan ahead. Please, rid yourself of the “I will cross that bridge when I get there” attitude. From day 1 in the PhD, start planning for your post-PhD career path in small steps. It is understandable that you will get overwhelmed with research and never-ending requests from your supervisor. But remind yourself that you are the only one responsible for your career path. Preparation is an investment, and should be prioritized.
- Find a mentor. This can be critical to your long-term success. Find a person that is already doing what you would like to do, connect with them, build rapport, and ask them to mentor you. Accomplished people who hold senior positions will usually give you some of their time if they like you and/or if you come through a strong reference. Take a look at your LinkedIn network and see who in your 2nd degree contacts can mentor you, then use a common connection for the introduction. If you really want to make a good impression, find out as much as possible about your potential mentor. Bring up some of their accomplishments in your first conversation to demonstrate your interest in them. This can go a long way.
- Develop soft skills. Get out of the lab and get involved in extracurricular activities. It will broaden your horizons and give you soft skills that will differentiate you from other PhDs. Consider even getting involved with external organizations. Don’t always be around people who speak the same lingo as you (i.e. scientists), get out there and experience other mindsets. One of the best things I did, albeit after my PhD, was to spend 2 months in South Africa as part of a consulting internship. I was the only PhD in the cohort surrounded by MBAs from top universities in North America and Europe, and we did consulting for not-for-profits and small businesses. It was an incredibly enriching experience. I learned a lot about myself, about consulting, about other cultures, and about other professions.
- Get involved in side research projects. I got my first job as project manager and innovation lead at a top pediatric hospital because of a side project that involved a collaboration with the Chief of Staff. Working with professors and graduate students outside of your lab could lead to great networking opportunities. It is also a good chance to showcase your work ethic and unparalleled experimental skills to a broader range of decision makers.
Beginning with the end in mind will not only enable you to accomplish your career goals but will also enrich your PhD journey and give you the much-needed drive to endure. This is your future, and ultimately you are responsible for your success. Take ownership of your career early, know what you want, and plan accordingly.