Last week I came across a piece in the newspaper titled; “Six things to consider before a PhD”. This set me to thinking about whether the story was about things to do instead of a PhD, or things to think about before starting a PhD. I pretty soon realised that: a) I could pretty quickly find out by just reading the article, and b) the point was moot, given that the ‘before’ part of my life has passed me by anyway. That set me to thinking that I should spend less time wandering around vacant psychological avenues and more time doing worthwhile stuff. But I digress; the article did raise a couple of points that are worth sharing.
The opening paragraph makes the point that a PhD means you can expect to commit 3-5 years of your life, without really ever having a day off. But you can’t expect to have an academic job, or any attractive job, at the end of it. It’s a pretty blunt message but the reality for most people. I’d argue that the commitment is by no means unique, for example people who own a small business are generally tied to it more or less 24/7, but I think the commitment only makes sense if there is a proportionate reward. If the medium-long term reward of a desirable job at the end of a PhD is less than likely, then what motivation sustains the commitment? One thing we can safely rule out is the salary!
For me personally there were two main rewards that ensured the commitment made sense. One is passion for the work, I see this as the reward that comes from doing something that does, or will at some point, make the world a better place. This may be a bit naïve or even conceited, but I think some degree of idealism is probably common to most people doing research, particularly in the healthcare field. The second speaks to the reward of personal or individual development, I value highly the improvement of my skills in thinking, understanding, communicating and increasing the stock in my education. At the end of the day, something has to get you out of bed and on the way to work in the morning. For a PhD student that isn’t the pay, or a high chance of a great job in a few years’ time - work out what motivates you, it will help keep you going through the tough spots.
The article also mentions the loneliness factor. The point is that often you will be the only person that is really really interested in the question you are attacking, and certainly you are the only one that is waist (or maybe neck) deep in it. That said the extent to which you are isolated depends a bit on whether or not you are working in a group and if so, the dynamics of the group. Certainly, the shared experience means there is often a great deal of camaraderie between students, which may take place in person or virtually. My take on it is that while individuals will happen to be in environments that are more or less supportive and interconnected, an individual feeling lonely or isolated can help themselves by taking a degree of responsibility. This is obviously challenging for introverted types, but there are many opportunities to connect with like-minded people, whether it is via groups set up within your institution or through the many blogs, facebook and twitter groups etc dedicated to connecting research students.
Please note that these are just my views, based on my experiences and reflections. What gets you out of bed and in sitting in front of spreadsheet full of numbers may be completely different, and feelings of isolation might be a bigger, smaller or non-existent issue. Looking back on my PhD I’m at peace with the time and effort it took and satisfied with the outcome, I have a job in academic research at the moment although I don’t know if I still will in a couple of years’ time, but I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it.