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The benefits of doing a PhD early in your career

This week's post is from Joshua Zadro about the benefits of starting a PhD early in your career. Josh is a Physiotherapist and Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Musculoskeletal Health Sydney, University of Sydney. His PhD largely focussed on physical activity as a risk factor and intervention strategy for people with low back pain. Today, he is investigating strategies to reduce low-value physiotherapy care in partnership with the Australian Physiotherapy Association, Choosing Wisely Australia and Wiser Healthcare Research Collaboration.

It’s never too early to consider a PhD. Even if you don’t have research experience and think research isn’t for you, or even if you are yet to graduate – as was my experience – it is important to remain open to the idea of doing a PhD and not ruling out an early start to a career in research. I finished my PhD at the end of last year; which I commenced immediately after graduating from a bachelor in Physiotherapy. Many PhD candidates have clinical experience and argue your research topic should be driven by something you’ve encountered clinically; and although I don’t disagree, I think there are also clear benefits to starting a PhD early. The insights I share in this article will hopefully open people’s minds to the possibility of pursing research early in their career.

So why did I start a PhD immediately after graduating? If you think it’s because I had a passion for research early in my degree you are wrong. For most of my degree I had no appreciation for the evidence and only wanted to be told what works. I was completely naïve to the idea that there was uncertainty in physiotherapy and that new research could change how physiotherapists practice. I had no desire to read the evidence – little-own search for it – but instead took what the lecturers said as gospel. I memorized as much as I could from class and prepared myself for clinical practice by reading Brukner and Kahn’s ‘Clinical Sports Medicine’ cover-to-cover. If statements in textbooks were referenced I considered them fact; with no interest in searching for where the information I was being taught came from. Fortunately, this all changed before I graduated.

Despite having no interest in research, I took the opportunity to do honours – primarily to improve my CV and career prospects. But I could never have anticipated what would happen next. A better understanding of how to acquire and critique evidence, run statistical analyses, and write scientifically gave me a huge appreciation for research. My eyes were opened to how much we still didn’t understand in physiotherapy and that many routine practices were not supported by strong evidence. I was given an appreciation into the hard work that goes into research, but also experienced satisfaction with the development of research skills and completing a research project. My mind had been opened to the possibility of pursuing a career in research and I didn’t want to wait.

To mine, and many of my peers’ surprise, by the end of honours I was submitting an application to start a PhD. With the support of my supervisors and scholarship funding, I started a PhD at the beginning of 2015; at the same time, I also started working clinically. The learning curve was steep but looking back I wouldn’t have done anything differently. I am now a postdoctoral research fellow who maintains a small clinical load, and I would like to share what I think are the main benefits and downsides of starting a PhD early in your career.

Benefits

  • Getting a scholarship: Scholarships are competitive and often based on your ‘research potential’. But since there is less expectation on new graduates, it is possible to be extremely competitive by getting a good honours mark and some additional experience relevant to a PhD. Presenting your research as a poster at a local symposium is a great way to showcase your ‘research potential’

  • Comparable wage to full-time work: Many people anticipate taking a pay-cut when doing a PhD, and this is likely truer the longer you’ve been working. But since PhD scholarships are typically tax free, if you’re able to do a few regular hours of paid work outside your PhD, your wage could be comparable to full-time clinical work (particularly if you’re a new graduate)

  • Job opportunities: During your PhD you will likely get opportunities to be involved in teaching or work as a research assistant on projects that interest you. These experiences could help slingshot you into various career pathways (e.g. lecturing) or highlight research areas that you would like to investigate after your PhD

  • Different perspectives: Understanding the research process can foster critical thinking and support your treatment decisions. For example, a better understanding of non-specific treatment effects (e.g. placebo) could help you avoid knee-jerk implementation of treatments with apparent clinical benefits but weak rationale

  • Transferrable skills: Time management, communication, collaborating across disciplines, presentation skills, and not to mention research skills (e.g. acquiring and evaluating the quality of evidence) are all skills that are transferable to clinical work

  • Other perks: Work variety during the week (e.g. clinic and research), not breaking the ‘study mindset’ after your degree, and opportunities to present your research overseas

Downsides

  • Steep learning curve: Developing both research and clinical skills from a new graduate level can be draining

  • Balancing clinical work: Getting the right balance between developing clinical experience and devoting sufficient time to your PhD can be difficult early on and there is a risk that one will suffer

  • Less research experience going into your PhD: Those who start a PhD later in their career often have research experience from working as a research assistant, completing a masters, or direct involvement in studies (e.g. a second reviewer on a systematic review, recruiting participants within their department, or implementing treatment protocols from clinical trials). Not only will these skills provide a great foundation for starting a PhD, but having a network of collaborators at the start of your PhD will help you get involved with numerous projects and potentially publish more papers – something that becomes very important if you decide to pursue a career in research or teaching after your PhD

  • Other potential cons: Criticism that your lack of clinical experience makes your research less relevant and feeling out of your depth

I strongly feel the benefits outweigh the downsides, but by no means do I think everyone must start their research career early. Everyone has different circumstances and in writing this article I only hope to open people’s minds to the possibility of starting a PhD sooner rather than later.