What I Wish Someone Had Told Me Before I Started My PhD

So I rarely go off on tangents here, but given the number of questions I’ve received about my PhD since starting the blog, I thought it might be a good idea to have a little sideline chat. Don’t worry, more smelly death stuff to come in the near future, but here are a few words of advice from someone at the end of a long journey to better help those on the path.

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Think About Whether or Not You Need a PhD…And Then Think About It Some More

A few months ago I was at a conference where a talented expert in her field related that she felt she needed to get a PhD to be treated as an authority on her subject. Every PhD student, candidate, and young academic spent the rest of the conference trying to disabuse her of this notion. It wasn’t a rebuke of her skills or writing, in fact, I think her dissertation would have been amazing, it was that her life plans did not seem to match an academic life and she quite frankly did not need the letters at the end of her name to justify her expertise.

Don’t get me wrong, there are lots of career paths where a PhD is vital, but don’t make the assumptions that more degrees automatically means more opportunities and increased income. Just google ‘hiding your PhD on your CV’ (I got over 1 million hits most of which seem to be saying, yes you shouldn’t disclose your PhD for fear of seeming overqualified). In some fields, the earing difference between a Masters and a PhD is also pretty small. For instance, in the US someone with a PhD in engineering only out earns a Masters in the same field by 7% thought their lifetimes. While a PhD in psychology out earns a Masters in psychology by 33%, but a Masters in engineering earns more than a PhD in psychology.  Also, keep in mind that 1 in 10 US students that enter into graduate school will take out $150,000 worth of debt. So you need to weigh both the possibility of increased income to possible debt load.

 

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I can not tell you how many people I’ve met that didn’t know what they wanted to do next or got laid off and decided to get a PhD. Hey, if you are Daddy Warbucks get all the degrees you want, but these are not good reasons to get a Doctorate for most of us mortals.

So really take the time to think about it. Is it right for you and can it benefit you both inside and outside of academia? If you can’t secure full funding how much debt is worth the increase in future pay? For myself, I was fully funded and I saw several ways that my PhD could help me in the future both in and outside of academia and that’s why I went for it, and on that note…

Chances Are You Are Not Going to Go the Tenured Academic Route

You may be saying, “But Nuri, I know exactly what I want to do, I’m going to be a college professor, I need a PhD” I really hate to burst your bubble but you should have a realistic understanding of the academic job market. I live in Israel. We have the highest percentage of PhDs per capita in the world, which is great, but we only have 9 universities and 50 colleges in the whole country. For every post that opens, there are thousands of applicants. In order to be viable, a PhD isn’t enough, you have to do Post Doctorates, and yes that is plural.  A Post Doc can last 12-24 months, is like a mini PhD, and usually means travelling to do them in other states or countries. Got a family? Bought a house? Don’t want to move to Denmark for a year? Can’t live on $1,000 a month? Too bad, if you are serious about academia and becoming a professor, a Post Doc is a needed step in this market, but be careful you don’t become a Perma-Doc (aka permanently under-employed as a postdoctoral candidate).

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This isn’t limited to Israel. Since the 1980s the number of PhDs that found tenure-track positions in the US went from 41% to 16%. 99.5% of STEM PhD graduates in the UK do not become professors. Europe, Japan, Singapore, Australia, the problem is everywhere. Part of it is there are too many PhD students, most universities don’t enforce mandatory retirement for older academics, and they’ve figured out that keeping us adjuncts (read: part-time) can save the universities a ton of money. All this while tuition for undergrad students taking our classes has increased 500% since the 1950s in the US.

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Look, it isn’t impossible to become a tenured academic but it isn’t easy and it is actively getting harder, and you should know that before taking the dive. I also don’t think this is the end of the world. If you go in with your eyes open and are flexible to several different career paths it isn’t an issue at all. While I think as an institution we need to do more to retain young academics, in the end, it might be better for you personally to get a PhD and take it somewhere else.

Picking an Advisor is Like Picking a Spouse, Choose Wisely

I know for a lot of folks school prestige and cost are the biggest considerations, but don’t overlook your advisor. A good advisor is the difference between: publishing three articles, a book and finding a great Post-Doc that leads to a full-time post, or shaving your head, taking a vow of silence, and hiding out in the mountains of Nepal for 6 years (I am directly referring two PhD students I know here). A good advisor keeps you on track, gives good advice, rides you when you need it, look for grants for you, and no matter how much she trash-talks the flaws of your work one-on-one she will be a champion for your work in the department and field.

 

Try to find an advisor that you admire and that has produced work that is in line with your research. Yet, take reputation with a grain of salt. Some of the most published dudes in my field are grade-A assholes and I would never want to work with them closely for three or four years. Build a rapport with a potential advisor, ask questions, ask around, talk to past students. Ask yourself do your personalities mesh? Do they have the type of leadership you need? Do you even know what kind of leadership and guidance you need? Do they and the facilities at their disposal meet your project needs?

Treat Your PhD Like a Small Business

So you’ve heeded my dire warnings and still think it is for you. You’ve got your funding, acceptance letter, found an advisor, and have a proposed dissertation you love. Now What? While every program and advisor relationship is different and some are more hands-on than others, for the most part, you are on your own. While the freedom seems appealing from the outside it is actually a monster that will swallow your whole life in PJ pants, late nights and procrastination. Seriously the biggest complaint my Doctoral cohorts and I have when we get together monthly is time management, procrastination, and impostor syndrome. If you are missing a skill and need to take a class or read a book to fill that gap, you are the one that has to identify that need and fill it. Don’t wait for someone else to tell you to do it, they won’t. Some of the things I had to teach myself include: how to build an experiment, professional citations, writing an article for a peer-reviewed journal, how to process data, and how to develop a methodology. So…everything…just all the things.

It’s a bit of a cruel joke really. School from kindergarten to the last year of your bachelors is passive, you are given instructions, structure, and asigments. All you have to do is listen and follow the rules. Then bam, welcome to grad school, do it yourself.  You are your first line of defence.

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You need to be a self-starter in your PhD and if you aren’t naturally that way it will be much better for your mental health if you develop those skills before jumping into the deep end. You need to treat your PhD like a project leader or better yet like a small business owner. You own your project and your objective is to get it into print in the best journal you can find. Manage your time, every day. Set a schedule. Have working hours. Do a little bit at a time. Remember you can’t cram a dissertation. You don’t need to focus on the huge task of writing a 200-page book, you just need to focus on finishing this one paragraph. Also go outside and put on real people clothes now and again.

Learn to Kill Your Babies

If you are a delicate flower about your proses this isn’t the field for you because everyone you know is going to tear your work to shreds. Most people know and fear the reviewers in the peer-review journals but by the time I got to them I was already such a hard grizzled vet nothing they said could hurt me. Your advisor will read and edit your stuff constantly. They will send it to other academics who will critique it, your proposal will go through review. You may send your work to other PhDs so they can look at it. Everything you write will be moulded and twisted by others. This is not a bad thing, 9 times out of 10 they are making your work better and that tenth time you need to stand up for your work and show why it needs to be your way. We don’t see academics in edits in movies and TV shows and I think that is a bad thing, we don’t really talk about it so folks on the outside assume these lovely thoughtful works come out of us fully formed, but that is never the case. Everyone gets edits. Einstein got edits. Don’t fall in love too much with any aspect of your work because you won’t see it clearly and it will break your heart when someone says, ‘this isn’t needed, take this whole section out.’

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Don’t Worry Everyone is an Impostor

Every female academic I know under 50 deals with some aspect of Impostor Syndrome. Ever.Last.One.Of.Us! Myself included, and a lot of guys deal with it too, though its prevalence among female academics cannot be denied. While not a recognised mental disorder Impostor Syndrome affects lots of people. It is a toxic mix of a fear of failure, desire for perfection, willingness to take on more than is reasonable, wanting to be perceived as likeable and internalising misogyny. You could be the star of the soccer team, with straight As in school, that saved a bus full of nuns and puppies and still feel like you are not good enough. That all this praise is unwarranted and eventually people will actually figure out you are a worthless piece of shit.

I have no advice on how to stop this but just know that it is there and we are worse off when we don’t talk about it. So don’t feel like you are alone. I’m an impostor, she’s an impostor, you’re an impostor, we are all impostors, let’s just do the dame thing already.

You Might Cry and That’s Ok, Ask For Help When You Need It

On that note, I also cried a lot in the early days of my PhD. I mean a lot, this might be surprising to my friends but I wept. I wanted things done better and faster and I had jerks that just didn’t like my work for no reason (or because they were in a dick measuring contest with my advisors). It was all very frustrating. Plus working constantly with tight deadlines can make anyone stressed out and isolates you from your peers. This happens to a lot of people and it’s ok. If you can avoid the mental health pitfalls before they happen you will be better off for it. For me, I had to give myself permission to weep like my world was falling apart every few weeks and it kept me sane. As Tina Fey said in her autobiography, Bossypants

Some people say, “Never let them see you cry.” I say, if you’re so mad you could just cry, then cry. It terrifies everyone.

Frustration is common and it is ok to feel what you feel and to ask for help if you need it. What you don’t want to happen is have it spiral into something much worse. 47% of graduate students are depressed and 10% report feeling suicidal. Talk to your advisors, talk with family and friends, use mental health services that are available on your campus. You are not alone. Your identity is more then the PhD and no matter what happens you are valuable even if you drop out or your experiment fails. Don’t lose hold of your perspective and make your health a priority.

Just Keep Failing Forward

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The path towards your PhD will have many ups and downs. You may start an experiment 100% certain you know the outcome only to find that you can never reproduce the pre-test results. You can spend two years developing an intricate theory only to have some dude make one comment at a presentation that tumbles all your beautiful logic to the floor. Every project has its failures, hopefully, yours will be small but no matter the knocks just keep failing forward. We stumble, make wrong assumptions, build bad models but that is how we learn and hopefully, at the end, we will contribute something to the collective of human knowledge that will leave it richer than when we came.


That’s my advice, but what about yours? Are you a PhD or academic, what should the next generation know? How were things different when you went through the process? Are you thinking about starting a PhD? Share your thoughts in the comments below and don’t forget to like and subscribe

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