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Should I do more study or start a PhD?

Finishing your undergraduate studies is a time to make big decisions about your career. Several people have asked me recently if they should pursue more study in graduate coursework or apply to a PhD program. People also ask if I think they should start a PhD or work go out into the job market.

I can relate my own experiences making these decisions (and I will in a bit). But these career decisions are very individual, so my experiences may not be relevant to every case. The better advice I can give is to ask yourself these questions:

What, where, how, who, when

What are my options?

If you haven’t already done so, it’s a good idea to list your career/training options systematically. Once you’ve put down the obvious ones, think a bit more creatively and put some ‘outside the box’ options down too.

For instance, you may be considering taking further courses in statistics versus starting a PhD. But maybe a third option is to seek work as technical support on a research team, and learn the technical skills on the job.

Or maybe the option is between pursuing a PhD locally, or going overseas.

You should then check that the options are viable. For instance, contact the graduate office of possible universities and see what qualifications are needed to get into a PhD program. In North America you generally need masters, whereas in Australia you need a qualification equivalent to First Class Honours.

There are other logistical things you should consider too, like financial viability of more study for your personally.

For me at the end of my Honours degree the options where: apply to an Australian PhD program, apply to an international PhD program, find a job as a government scientist. After some email and research I very quickly figured out an international PhD was very unlikely, because I didn’t have a masters. So I focused my efforts on a local PhD or a job.

Where do I want to be in 3-5 years?

Ask yourself where you want to get to in the mid-term. You could make this in 10 years, but I find most people find it hard to think that far ahead.

If this question seems difficult, you can try and ask it in different ways. Like, if I was successful in my career, where would I be and what would I be doing?

For me I wanted to be having an impact on society and helping the environment through science (or so I thought, see the next step). So working in government seemed like a pretty good option, but that didn’t rule out a PhD.

How will this decision be good for me?

Now we’ve got some of the practical things on paper, we need to go a bit deeper into your core values. So pick one of the options under the What question and ask yourself:

How will this choice be good for me?

Once you’ve found the answer ask the question again, and again, but more specific. We want to get to the core reason you are trying to make this decision. The first few answers are usually quite superficial, so we need to keep asking. As an example, I’ll relate my own answers from some years ago:

Question: How will starting this PhD be good for me?

Answer: I’ll get to study amazing topics that have an impact on society in a lab full of young and inspiring people.

Question: How will studying these topics be good for me?

Answer: I’ve always wanted to be a marine biologist. Also, I’ll have the independence to pursue my own research interests.

Question: How will pursing my own research interests be good for me?

Answer: I enjoy being creative and having the independence to be creative in my own way.

So basically, a decision that for me on the face of it was just about doing interesting things and pursuing the career I’d always wanted, turned out to be about the freedom to be creative (among other things of course, I’m sure your goals will be more complex than this).

You might like to repeat the above questions for the other options you listed under ‘What’.

Who has influenced this decision?

Now you have a better idea of what you want to achieve and why, think about the people and experiences that have influenced these values.

Now I’m mid-career, its surprising how many people I meet who are dissatisfied in their career as a scientist, accountant, lawyer, or whatever career. They are in the career because at an early stage, someone advised them to follow that career (like their parents or an important early mentor), and they invested so much in it that they never changed.

So think about who is influencing you.

It might also be experiences that influence you. For me, seeing the environment change (for the worse) was a big influence, but so too were a lot of people and mentors.

What you are trying to do is find your own goals and not follow a career for other people’s goals.

Another important part of the ‘who’ question is to seek advise and multiple different perspectives on your decision. So if you can talk to people from a range of career stages and ask them about their career.

Talk to current PhD students, to get a better idea of the joys and challenges of doing a PhD (it’s not easy, you need to be motivated!). Talk to successful career scientists. Talk to people who have longer careers, in any career, and find out how they made their career choices. You want to get lots of different perspectives on this decision.

If you are happy you truly have your own goals then proceed below. If not, then perhaps you want to revisit the what, where, how steps above.

When do I need to make these decisions?

The what, where how, who may take you a few hours, or it may take months. For me it took months, including applying to numerous PhD programs locally and overseas. I applied for jobs too and even got offered one in a government research organisation. In the end however, I realised I wanted creative freedom, so I took a PhD scholarship offer.

Once you feel like you have a grip on your values, then its time to figure out how to get there. So look at your 3-5 year goal. Now work backwards from that to now, to figure out what steps you need to take to get you there. Maybe you need to do more study, so you can get into a PhD program, or maybe you don’t.

For me it was pretty simple:

5 year goal was to have a research job (government or uni) where I could have an impact on environmental issues, but also be senior enough that I’d have the freedom to pursue my own ideas. So to get that job I needed a PhD. I had the qualifications already to apply for a PhD scholarship in Australia, and options for PhD scholarships in my specific field, so that was the decision I ended up making.

A note of thanks to Mark Douglas and Ethos Australia for inspiring this post at recent workshop I took on research leadership.



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